How Kava Helps Reduce Poverty in Fiji

The Role of Kava in Fiji’s Society and Economy

Kava is one of the chief exports in Fiji next to sugar, garments, gold, fish and mineral water, and it significantly contributes to Fiji’s social and economic development. Kava provides employment, enhances livelihoods and reduces poverty. This is important because, like other Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Fiji has limited entrepreneurial opportunities.

In a 2017 paper published in The Journal of Pacific Studies, author Associate Professor Manoranjan Mohanty details the role of kava in Fiji. “While Fiji Islanders consider kava as a traditional and ceremonial product, Western pharmaceutical companies recognise its medicinal potential,” he writes. “It was introduced into the global commodity chain that carved out a place for Fiji in the global economy.”

“It is not only a ceremonial and social product, but also a product of great importance, contributing to social and economic development through its export values and trade, labour employment, livelihoods and poverty alleviation and growth of informal sector activities. Kava is an important agricultural, entrepreneurial and business product in Fiji,” he writes.

How is Kava Grown?

The main kava producing and exporting Pacific countries are Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Solomon Islands. Kava has a five-year cropping cycle. Most kava is grown along hillsides in steep sloping lands in remotely located plots. Traditionally, kava is interspersed with other subsistence crops such as taro, yam and coconut trees which act as windbreakers and provide shade, preventing moisture loss.

“The advantage of farming kava is that it is a high value cash crop, a non-perishable agricultural commodity and also it is not a seasonal crop that can be harvested at any time of the year.” writes Mohanty.

Most kava is produced using a combination of family and hired labor. There were 10,471 kava farmers in 2016.

The First Kava Boom

The first “kava boom” for Fiji occurred in the 1990s when kava was exported as a traditional beverage, and exported to Europe. Fiji’s kava export earnings were F$6 million (Fijian dollars) in 1997 which increased to F$35 million in 1998, an increase of 483 percent during 1997-1998. (One Fijian dollar equals about 49 cents in U.S. currency)

Current Exports

Fiji’s export volume had increased steadily from 137 tons in 2013 to nearly 311 tons in 2017. Exports generated nearly F$20 million in 2017, with an annual average value of nearly F$8 million during 2007-2017, according to the paper.

Among the Pacific Island countries, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Tonga were the leading importers of Fiji Kava in 2017. Outside of the Pacific region, Fiji kava has a niche market in six areas including New Zealand, the United States, Hawaii, Australia, the United Kingdom and United Arab Emirates (UAE). Together, these countries accounted for nearly 82 percent of the total export volume and 78 percent of the kava export value of Fiji kava in 2017. 

New Zealand and the U.S. are the leading export markets for Fiji kava. New Zealand accounted for about 42 percent of kava export volume followed by the U.S. in 2017 (37 percent). However, in terms of kava export value, the U.S. was the leading country, contributing nearly 58 per cent of Fiji’s total export value in 2017.

The popularity is only increasing. According to the Ministry of Agriculture in Fiji, “Kava is one of the country’s top export commodity raking in $32.5m in exports in 2019. Also significant was its impact on the local economy (local sales) where it generated over $300m as quoted in the Kava Value Chain Analysis Report.”

Why the Boom?

There has been a significant trend toward alternative and traditional remedies in the West, and kava has emerged as a leader.

The active compounds in kava are called kavalactones, which account for 3-20% of the root’s dry weight. Research has shown that kavalactones may help reduce anxiety and pain and improve insomnia. Kavalactones appear to work by impacting the brain’s neurotransmitters, primarily GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which decreases nerve activity.

So far, 18 different kavalactones have been isolated and identified. However, six of them — kavain, dihydrokavain, methysticin, dihydromethysticin, yangonin, and desmethoxyyangonin — have been found to be responsible for about 96% of the plant’s pharmacological activity. 

Many people report that kava helps with anxiety. Research is also promising. In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study, researchers looked at the effectiveness of kava on patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). A total of 75 participants were enrolled in a 6-week trial of a kava extract versus placebo. The findings revealed a significant reduction in anxiety for the kava group compared with the placebo group. 

A Vital Contributor to Fiji’s Economy

Kava is an important cash crop, and it gives greater economic returns than other crops such as cassava (yuca) and taro (a starchy root vegetable similar to a potato). 

According to Mohanty, “Kava business involves almost all major economic sectors in Fiji: agriculture, industry and service sectors for its growth and promotion. Economic sectors such as agriculture, tourism, and transport are heavily involved in the kava business.”

“Kava business includes retailing and trading, thus is a tertiary economic sector activity as well. Thus, kava is a primary, secondary and tertiary sector activity in Fiji. The kava value chain includes farmers, traders, vendors and exporters.”

Kava Helps the Rural Population

Kava provides livelihoods to small rural farmers and retail traders. Nearly 44 percent of Fiji’s population now lives in rural areas. One in 8 rural households is a kava grower in Fiji and in some provinces such as Kadavu, over 80 percent of all households grow kava.

Kava farming helps rural households through income-generation and plays a significant role in poverty alleviation in Fiji. The business generates household income and supports children’s education, and transport. 

Kava also brings the village youth more money and makes the employment prospects better. Kava industry has a large employment potential and the industry provides employment to a large number of people in the informal sector. 

According to the paper, “Kava remains a major source of income and livelihood to the rural farmers in Fiji. Rural communities are connected to global markets through this niche product. Fiji kava promotes the tourism sector as well. Tourists are attracted to kava sessions and enjoy kava drinking with the local populace. They participate in traditional Fiji kava ceremonies as well. Kava tourism is a significant revenue generator in Vanuatu.”


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