Day 40 (or so) of our Pacific Journey – The Quest for Fiji Water
November 26, 2007
Okay, we’ve skipped quite a few days, and it’s possible my day count is a bit off too – this whole thing with being on the other side of the International Date Line is really messing us up. If there is a mistake we’ll correct that if necessary during some sort of back fill process (which there needs to be since we have so many great photos from the last month of travel).
As promised in the previous post, we did sally forth yesterday (here it’s already the Tuesday the 27th of November, in the evening) in search of the place where they bottle Fiji Water, as well as to explore other parts of Fiji’s big island of Vitu Levu. I should explain that many companies claim some sort of affiliation with a particular geographic region, but when you dig deeper you find that is merely a marketing play. For example, we found in Hawaii that the Maui Fresh brand apparently had nothing to do with Maui – it was all a mainland thing.
So, we wanted to see for ourselves whether Fiji Water was really from Fiji. The signs were encouraging – we had seen a big advertisement near the Nadi airport when we first arrived over a week ago promoting Fiji Water and proclaiming “Visit the Source”. And that’s what we intended to do.
When we checked in at our hotel on Saturday, we explored the area and found a small restaurant and taxi business on the property next door to the Outrigger resort we’re presently staying at, and while there, had mentioned our quest for Fiji Water. After clarifying that we didn’t want to buy any Fiji Water (it was in the cooler at the mini-mart located also located there), one of the people there suggested he knew where Fiji Water was bottled and suggested that instead of renting a car (yet another service these entrepreneurial folks offered), we could instead hire a car with a driver, and get a tour as well. Considering our destination was over three hours away by car (this is not a tiny island we’re on), and the price suggested, 220 Fijian Dollars (about US$143), was not unreasonable, we ultimately decided to take them up on the offer. So on Sunday we put down a deposit and yesterday, on Monday, our driver Babu picked us up at 7:30am and off we went.
Much as we’ve found on most other Pacific islands, there’s one main road that encircles the island, with the interior being quite mountainous and impenetrable. Vitu Levu was no different in that respect. Only sheer size differed, in that a full circumnavigation would take around 12 hours (because a long stretch of road is dirt, not paved – if it were paved, it would be around 8 hours around the island). And, of course, all traffic on the island appears to be on the road when it’s least convenient. Glad someone else was driving. However, the cars per capita number seems to be much lower here than on the Hawaiian islands, with most people relying on a network of buses to get around.
I’d like to add at this point that any statistics about Fiji I cite in this blog entry are based almost entirely on discussions with various Fijian citizens, and mostly there on speaking at great length with Babu, our driver. However, I’ve not seen or heard anything that would cast doubt on the things he told me either.
Fiji & Vitu Levu – An Overview
The population of Vitu Levu, which contains Suva, the capitol of Fiji, as well as the large towns or areas of Ba, Sigatoka (which is near our hotel), Lautoka, Tavua, and Nadi (where the international airport is located), is around 500,000 people. What is interesting is that according to the most recent census, the Indian (as in Asian Indian, Hindustani) population is at around 35%, while the native Fijian population is around 60%. That a marked decrease in the Indian population in the last decade or so, as there has been an exodus of those of Indian descent to places like New Zealand and Australia for a variety of reasons, including an inability to own land.
You may wonder, as did we, how there came to be such a large Indian population in the first place. Well, the answer is sweet – sugar sweet. The British Empire, in the 1800s, brought in what was effectively Indian slave labor to help harvest sugar cane in Fiji, because they were apparently unable to get native Fijians to do the job in the fashion they wished. Over the ensuing decades, the Indians continued to maintain their communities, and to a remarkable extent, their culture. You see women wearing saris everywhere, and the cuisine has Asian Indian influences, with curries and roti being widely eaten. Babu is a fifth generation Indian Fijian, incidentally.
It should be noted that Fiji split from Britain in 1976 to become a Republic, but is still part of the British Commonwealth (and the fact that Queen Elizabeth’s face adorns all the paper currency is a testament to that).
Our personal observations show that the Indian and Fijian communities here on Vitu Levu are rather distinct and separate for the most part, and inter-racial relationships, which in fact were shunned by both Indians and native Fijians not long ago, are only now starting to appear as a public thing among the younger generations (although still not generally accepted by older generations, as best we can tell).
Ethnic Fijians still have a somewhat tribal structure – we noticed this in the out-islands where we were all last week – with a village chieftain, whose word is law, and who controls the village’s or tribe’s land. A large percentage of Fijian land (we heard it might be as high as 90%) is still in control of Fijian villages, with the rest either free hold land (the title is owned free and clear by some other party) or crown leased land (belongs to the government and is leased for a 99+ year period to some party). Native Fijian village land can be leased, but typically the lease is only for 50 years, and at the end of the lease reverts back to the village unless some other arrangement is made, and that creates a disincentive for anyone to invest heavily in constructing nice homes or office buildings on village land (unless it’s the chief him or herself – there is in fact one woman chief on Vitu Levu, but apparently only one). This land disparity is what has been suggested as the cause for the exodus of Indian Fijians, as they have no villages and no chiefs, and therefore no ancestral lands to call their own in Fiji.
But, as usual, I digress. I will close this section with a bit more cultural information.
There are three languages in use in Fiji – native Fijian (spoken mostly by native Fijians), Hindi (spoken predominantly by Fijians of Indian descent), and English (taught in the all schools as the primary language of Fiji, but in our experience a fair number of people here have great difficulty communicating in English). According to Babu, the relatively new military-based government (there was a coup just under a year ago) has decreed that starting with the next school year (school ends this week, and summer vacation starts next week) in February, all three languages will be taught in school, including the reading and writing of these languages, but with English still the primary language of instruction.
The major religion on the island is Christian Methodist (a result of early missionary work in the 1800s) among ethnic Fijians, with Islam (Sunni) and Hindu strong in the Fijian Indian communities. Other Christian variants as well as other Asian religions (e.g. Sikh), are also represented.
Sugar and tourism are the biggest industries in Fiji at present, but the tourism industry took a nose dive after the coup last December 5th, and the sugar industry is threatened by the withdrawal in 2008 of European Union sugar subsidies.
Which is why a company like Fiji Water is potentially so important to Fiji’s future (nice segue back to the topic at hand, eh?).
Finding Fiji Water
As we were about 2 hours into our drive, and my non-stop discussions with Babu (the rest of the Richters were in the back seat, so intent on our conversation they apparently had to close their eyes to concentrate enough to absorb it all), he gets a phone call telling him that we may or may not actually get into the Fiji Water plant, since they typically don’t accept visitors on Mondays. Wednesday and Thursday are visitor days, and then only with an appointment. Babu did however get a name of a woman at Fiji Water that we could try and use to beg for a tour. We were not wild about this development, but considering we were more than half-way there, we slogged on.
Another thing that we found odd was that while we saw the large bill board telling us to “Visit the Source”, there were in fact no signs or any other stationary indications that we were heading the right way. Babu told us that one of his past associates had brought a group up to the plant a couple of years ago, though, and had been told roughly where to find the plant (i.e. “If you get to the village of Drauniivi, you’ve gone too far – it’s in Yaqara”). One encouraging sign after we passed the port city of Lautoka was that we started intermittently seeing and passing container trucks with Fiji Water placards.
We did actually end up in Drauniivi, and after asking directions, turned back and found an unmarked road going inland, post with a no trespassing sign. We went ahead anyway, and found a huge white satellite dish (major bucks to buy and operate), and shortly thereafter an industrial building in the middle of nowhere, with stacks and stacks of 20 foot shipping containers in the yard. It appeared we had finally found the home of Fiji Water. As we drove up to find the right security gate, I joked to Babu that at the nearby residential section we saw they probably washed their cars with Fiji Water. Turned out I was right on that point, much to both our amusement.
I got out at the security gate, gave my name and mentioned the name of the contact we had been given and gushed on about how we Americans had traveled all the way to Fiji to see the home of the wonderful Fiji Water (and it is pretty good stuff). It was a bit tense, and I was told to get back into the car and wait for further directions.
About 15 minutes later, during which time I made sure to visibly drink from a bottle of Fiji Water, a guard came out to guide us into the facility. There we went inside the main building and were greeted by the contact. After explaining we had come a great distance to see Fiji Water’s origin for ourselves, and would love a tour, she left and in her place returned an American woman, Molly Powers, the Culture and Community Affairs Coordinator of Fiji Water.
Molly was a former Peace Corps volunteer who had been in Fiji for a couple of years and only recently come on board with Fiji Water to use her experience to work with local communities with outreach efforts. We were lucky to have caught her in, and when we discovered she grew up only a couple towns over from where I went to high school, we ended up finding quite a bit to talk about.
Molly was nice enough to give us a bit of background of the Fiji Water company, and then give us a tour of the bottling area. The company was started in 1996 by Canadian billionaire David Gilmour and is now owned by a California company. In the 11 years it has been in business, it has one of the best brands that I have seen, to the extent that many of the fine hotels and restaurants I frequent feature Fiji water as their preferred still water, even offering special silver decanters designed to fit the more square shape of Fiji Water’s bottles. In a world of roundish water bottles, it’s good to be squarish. Fiji water sales have quadrupled in the last year, and they are apparently now selling 15 million bottles a year (this year, presumably).
Fiji Water’s artesian water comes from aquifers located under the biggest mountain range in Fiji, and is naturally replenished from rainfall and runoff. The large amounts of volcanic soil and rock above the aquifer act as filters to remove impurities from the water, while at the same time giving it a high silica level, which is attributed for giving Fiji Water a “softer feel” than other mineral waters.
The water from the aquifer is further filtered for biological materials, and then fills Fiji Water’s distinct plastic bottles. Those bottles (and caps) are actually manufactured on-site at the plant, as we saw. Every 15 minutes a filled bottle is randomly sampled and tested to ensure the quality of the product.
We saw this process from a hallway with big windows overlooking two huge rooms. The first room was the bottling room, where the bottles were made from raw plastic, which was then molded into test tubes, and those test tubes then heated and extruded into a mold to product the right sized Fiji Water bottle (Linda and Bas saw how this is done on the Discovery Channel and shared that nugget of knowledge with us). Once made, the bottles would then be filled with the water from the aquifer.
There were three production lines available for use, to each make, at any given time, one of four different sizes of Fiji Water bottle – 1.5 liter, 1 liter, 500 ml, and the new 330 ml bottle. Once the bottles were filled and capped in this clean-room sanitary environment, they moved over to the next room which I call the packaging room. Here labels were applied to the bottles (different labels for different distributors and countries), bottles were shrink wrapped into bundles, and bundles were boxed. Most of this was fully automated, with humans assisting and verifying the process (and correcting things when machines didn’t quite get things right).
All in all, a fascinating process.
On the eco side of things, Molly explained that Fiji Water workers have a higher income than just about any other class of worker in Fiji, and that worker benefits also include a case of water each week. As part of the outreach efforts, the company also donates water to local sporting groups (soccer and rugby are huge), local schools, and also disaster relief efforts. There is also a lot of interaction with the half dozen or so surrounding villages, from which the company draws many of its 150 or so local employees. The company also brings in local school children to show them that modern industrial operation with a Fiji-derived product is possible and viable and give them some hope and inspiration for the future.
And Molly is right about that, we think. The Fiji Water plant is a technological wonder in the middle of nowhere, and in a country which is still rather agrarian and somewhat primitive in many ways. One would never expect something like this plant to be where it is, and accomplish what it does so well. Additionally, with the excellent branding that has been done for Fiji Water, it also improves the name recognition and value of the Republic of Fiji itself – kind of an interesting turn, in that usually it’s the name of the country which establishes the base for a brand (e.g. American Airlines, American Express, Deutsche Bank, Swiss Army Knife, etc.)
And Fiji Water is working to further improve their branding by working towards achieving a net zero carbon footprint by next year, as well as starting to actually offer public tours similar to the kind that Molly had so nicely agreed to give us.
After having (and with great gratitude) taken up over a half hour of Molly’s time, we were each given our own bottles of Fiji Water for the ride back, and she even graciously agreed to pose with us for a photo.
Our search for Fiji Water did not end up in vain after all.
The Trip Home – Sleeping Giants and The Temple of Sri Siva Subramaniya
We left around 12:30pm, and found ourselves lunch in the town of Ba, in the small second story Chands Restaurant. Probably the best meal at the best price (less than US$25) we have had in Fiji, although the average American might have been scared off by the look of the place.
After lunch we stopped at the Gardens of the Sleeping Giant. This was an area that had been built by actor Raymond Burr back in 1977 to help him cultivate orchids for his own use. The “Sleeping Giant” is reportedly an image seen in the mountains towering above the gardens, but try as we might, we could not see that imagery. However, the orchids – both in terms of variety and beauty – were amazing. We took a long walk (just under an hour) through the gardens, and into the thick of the jungle. Simply beautiful.
As we made our way back through Nadi, I had Babu stop at the Sri Siva Subramaniya Hindu temple so I could take pictures of this magnificent set of shrines. The Hindu priest I spoke with inside told me his temple was the largest Hindu temple in all of the South Pacific, and I could believe it. You could also just feel the love and dedication that went into its making, with its detailed paintings and sculpture adorning most every surface.
After a while there, having made a small monetary contribution to the Temple in admiration of the work that went into its making, we finally headed back to our hotel for dinner and rest.
I close by saying that Babu was great. If you need a private tour guide and driver, I cannot recommend anyone better here on Vitu Levu. He works for Johnny’s Taxi & Tours – phone (+679) 652-0684, right next to the Outrigger On The Lagoon Fiji, in Sigatoka.
Thus ends Day 40 (or so) of our Grand Pacific Voyage.
Photos from this day can be found here.