Local Business Owner has Confidence in the Mahogany Industry
Fiji is blessed with an existing forest cover of 1.1 million hectares covering approximately 61 percent of our total land area of 1.8 million hectares or 18,000 square kilometres. Sustainably managing our forests to cater for natural ecosystems including environmental and climate-change mitigation on the one hand, and economic development on the other hand, is extremely important and can never be over-emphasised. This balance is always at the top of the national agenda.
From an economic perspective, the forestry sector is integral to Fiji’s economic development and has over the decades supported increased export earnings and employment.
As part of Government’s ongoing efforts to support the private sector, which is recognised as the Nation’s engine for economic growth, the Ministry of Forestry is reaching out to the companies in the forestry sector to talk about their journey including their challenges. The ultimate aim is to better understand the companies and to see how the Ministry could facilitate the ease of doing business, while ensuring that both the private and public sectors contribute to the sustainable management of Fiji’s forests.
In this series, we talk to Mr. Uluibau Tabete, proprietor of TABS Investments, a locally owned business that is considered a rising star in the forestry sector.
Mr Tabete recalls with fondness how he came across an antique shop selling mahogany furniture while living in England.
“I first saw an old antique mahogany furniture and interior décor in 1986 at Windsor Castle in London when I was 10 years old during my primary school excursion. My father served as a career civil servant and was posted to the Fiji High Commission in London at the time.”
Having returned to Fiji many years after that, Mr, Tabete shared how in 2007 his family was struggling to make ends meet and could not keep up with the payment of their family home. He recalls that it was in the midst of this family financial struggle, that he saw an opportunity to trade Fiji’s locally grown mahogany to traders in the United States of America and Europe, as local producers and traders in Fiji lacked access into these overseas markets.
TABS Investments was established 11 years ago as a limited company specializing in manufacturing mahogany guitar dimension parts known as ‘Billets’.
“Our major production line provides for guitar timber pieces as well as body facility of the musical equipment. We have also entered into local-based production line of ukulele under the Marau brand. The musical equipment is produced from mahogany waste wood off-cuts thus ensuring that Fiji reduces any waste from this high-value tree,” Mr Tabete said.
Collaboration with Stakeholders
Now with two directors, five board members and 68 staff, TABS Investments makes the effort to consistently collaborate with stakeholders across Fiji to help ensure a sustainable forestry sector.
“Our immediate stakeholders are our 68 staff members and local service providers. An example of how we impact our local services providers can be seen in how each of our saw millers employ up to 50 staff each.”
TABS Investments currently mills at four sawmills namely Vitiana in Nabua, Yarawa in Serua, Mahesh in Vuda and A. Jan in Ba.
“Government through The Fiji Hardwood Corporation (FHCL) is an extremely important stakeholder for us and our mahogany industry. FHCL holds a vital and important position in our industry as the entity responsible for the overall sustainability of our mahogany plantations, environmentally friendly, best logging practices and the need to appreciate Fiji's valuable mahogany markets for continued high value supply through close quality control,” Mr. Tabete said.
Mr. Tabete added that provided FHCL and TABS Investments are successful in supplying Fiji mahogany for high-value guitar parts and dimensions, their 2021 projections will see the company contribute greatly to the economic growth of Fiji’s forestry sector through harvesting, land lease payments, reforestation, licensing fees and administration services.
“We trust and rely on Government through the Ministry of Forestry and FHCL to use funds that we pay through log purchases for reforestation and other associated activities pertaining to ensuring a sustainable forestry sector which is carried out accordingly and in line with the Mahogany Industry Development Decree and Forestry Policy and Guidelines,” Mr. Tabete said.
He added that as a growing company, they rely on Government to nurture and support TABS Investments marketing activities and help bring high-value returns for Fiji’s precious mahogany species from regions of the world who really appreciate Fijian mahogany for its high quality.
“Mahogany has a special historical trade significance in western society and this is one of the reasons the species was introduced here in 1890s before large-scale mahogany plantations started in the 1950s.”
In September 2018, TABS Investments contributed $80,000 to the Fiji Mahogany Trust’s (FMT) private company Mahogany Landowners Company Limited (MLCL) for the initiation of timber operations to supply to TABS Investments as their local market.
MLCL continues to function today also producing timber for export to their own New Zealand markets.
“Provided our export deliveries are efficient in 2021, we plan to make more funding available for FMT to boost their timber operations from August 2021.”
“A small number of our staff are also landowners who have been working for our company for almost 10 years now. We also engage in commercial and service trade relationships with many landowning communities for the ripping of mahogany using portable sawmills.”
“We don’t deny that we have had challenges with some of our community projects in our early years, but we have always remained true to getting through those challenges. We are a local company striving to grow and develop against all odds. Humility has a mainstay and a big part of our lasting relationships,” Mr. Tabete said.
Mr Tabete said that due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the supply of their monthly log requirements is facing some challenges.
“But we are working very closely with FHCL to iron out some of these challenges including identifying opportunities for strategic logging and delivery to our designated sawmills.
We are also experiencing hikes in operational costs for managing staff to work within their containment zones while adhering to COVID-19 protocols and using the relevant Personal Protective Equipment.”
Mr. Tabete said this also includes costs for independent transport such as hiring minibuses to pick and drop 68 staff from their homes and drop them off at various sawmills across Viti Levu. He said that despite these challenges, TABS Investments has not laid off any staff.
Forecast for 2021
For this year, TABS Investments forecasts a timber production volume of 6700 cubic metres, 80 per cent of which is expected to be exported while 20 per cent is expected for domestic or local trade.
“Our forecasted targeted revenue for this year stands at FJD$13.6million compared to FJD$4.2million last year with new markets in Germany, France and Australia. All to support our local industry and economy,” Mr. Tabete said.
TABS Investments’ current export markets are the world renowned guitar brands Taylor Guitars, Fender, Gibson and Martin in the United States of America and other markets in the European Union, Japan and New Zealand.
The company also has a growing local market and is well serviced by Vinod Patel’s timber division.
Despite the challenges, Mr Tabete is confident, TABS Investments will continue to grow because of its binding industry relationships and will continue to play a pivotal role in regaining economic growth for Fiji’s forestry sector.
Confidence in the Mahogany Industry
With the confidence of the Fijian Government in the mahogany industry, Mr. Tabete is adamant that increased mahogany exports will significantly contribute to Fiji’s economy. It is with this confidence that Mr Tabete chooses to believe that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the support of Government and other major players is what will keep his local business afloat.
Mr. Tabete says that an appreciation for mahogany as a high-end and globally recognized species is also an important motivation to stand their ground and have faith in Fiji’s forestry sector during these trying times.