Litia Kirwin, founding director of Loving Islands, is empowering Pacific Island’s communities to embrace sustainable development.
by Julia Migné
Formed less than two years ago, Loving Islands has already managed to make waves in the Pacific Islands.
The organisation, founded by Australian-Fijian, Litia Kirwin, is determined to provide communities in Australia and Fiji with better access to sustainable economic development opportunities but not at any cost. A crucial aspect of Loving Islands is to develop those opportunities with locals whilst maintaining the key environmental integrity of the islands.
Following a Masters of Commerce with a specialisation in innovative entrepreneurship and business sustainability, Litia decided to put her new skill set to good use by launching her own grassroots social enterprise.
She explains that she used her acquired business perspective to assess what the key resources were present in Fiji and what the main challenges to development were. She then came up with a plan to overcome those challenges in the simplest way possible by just using the resources that local communities had.
Since its launch in 2016, Loving Islands has impacted more than 300 island residents registering 5,000 acres under organic land management. In order to empower Fijians with sustainable economies meeting their needs, Litia and her team provide various services to local communities.
From project management to supply chain facilitation, the social enterprise is working hard to spark the sustainable development of the Pacific Islands and ensure the generation of long-term income.
“I’m really proud of the support of the communities! We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t received well or if it wasn’t enjoyable so that makes a huge difference. Seeing that it does impact on people’s lives is awesome!”
Working with big partners such as the U.S. Embassy’s Regional Environment Office, the Pacific Organic & Ethical Trade Community and the United Nations Development Programme, Loving Islands is currently running a couple of projects focusing on youth empowerment, marine conservation, and organic farming.
“It’s been challenging to sustain so many projects,” Litia explains. “Finding the right people to take on the different projects is really critical. It’s not just about the education and the higher level experience. You need people who have come from the grassroots and who understand how a village setup works and how to relate to [local] people.”
An important aspect of the projects ran by Loving Islands is that they have to help regenerate natural environment in addition to providing an economic output. Matuku Island Reef 2 Ridge, one of the projects currently running, is, for example, “seeking to build sustainable incomes through sustainable harvesting and value-addition of seaweeds” while the Matuku Island Organic Farming Project is developing income opportunities through the sales of organic products.
Litia explains that the social enterprise grew quite organically. “I was lucky enough to get an international research grant as part of my final Masters’ programme,” she adds. “That brought me to Fiji to do a research project on whether or not organic farming was a suitable means for rural island development.”
“Through that research, I met a lot of partners while collecting information and from there four or five months later I applied for a small grant to actually pilot the findings of my research paper.”
Her determination and hard work opened the door to a collaboration with the UN which ended up turning into a big contract snowballing into various other projects.
In northern Fiji, the organisation is now working towards empowering youth by providing them with gainful employment through sustainable agriculture. “They are in a situation where they will have to be self-employed and they will have to generate their own income because the job opportunities are just not there,” adds Litia.
In the eastern and northern areas of Fiji, which is where Loving Islands are mostly working at the moment, most of the residents identify as indigenous Fijians according to Litia.
“It’s very much traditional communities and traditional structures,” she explains. “There are not much government offices out there so people are left self-governing their communities.”
The team really has to adapt its approach to the local culture for the projects to succeed. Developing an effective communication strategy and getting the community approval is absolutely essential to get their support.
Reflecting on Loving Islands’ success Litia adds that she really puts it down to the leadership and guidance the social enterprise got from key elders from different communities.”That definitely played a huge role in terms of delivering the message to the communities!”
Listening to locals and having those important conversations with elders was crucial to ensure that people would feel connected to the project. Litia explains: “I’m really proud of the support of the communities. We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t received well or if it wasn’t enjoyable so that makes a huge difference. Seeing that it does impact on people’s lives is awesome!”
Through its online shop, Loving Islands allows customers in Fiji and Australia to buy homewares and handicrafts made by Fijian communities. In addition to turning certified organic cotton into beautiful homewares, local communities have started processing coconut oil into organic soap.
“We’ve been trialling a whole lot of different things,” explains Litia. “We found that the easiest things in terms of immediate income outputs come from what local resources they have available.”
Various countries such as Bali and Morocco have already started turning traditional skills into homeware products suitable for western customers and Loving Islands is keen to tap into that market by proving that their products can be both consistent and of great quality.
With Litia having recently made it to the prestigious Forbes list of 30 under 30, Loving Islands looks to continue making waves in the Pacific.
Julia Migné is a multimedia journalist and wildlife photographer specialising in environmental issues and odd hobbies. She has written for Africa Geographic and BBC Wildlife among others. An endless traveller, she swears that she would visit one country for each letter of the alphabet.