4 Sep 2013

Mounting calls for Solomons government to protect indigenous businesses

5:01 pm on 4 September 2013

There are mounting calls in Solomon Islands for the government to better protect and support indigenous business people.

A growing Chinese population has driven up competition in the retail and wholesale sectors and there are widespread concerns new arrivals from mainland China are creeping into businesses reserved for the indigenous population.

Beverley Tse compiled this report:

"SOLOMONS SHOPKEEPER: When we try to compete with Chinese we find it very difficult since they control the prices and they start off with big capital."

This shopkeeper, who did not want to be named, is one of few indigenous people operating retail stores in Honiara. Chinese people dominate the retail and wholesale sectors. Jacob, who works at a stationery and printing store in Renadi, says he aims to sell products that Chinese retailers don't offer.

JACOB: We are trying our very best to compete with Chinese business people over here, and it's very hard for us to compete with them because they own most of the businesses over here. And they have a big influence over here. So we are struggling a bit.

Less than a decade ago, the government introduced a policy whereby more than a dozen job categories, including bus and taxi services and takeaway shops, were reserved for indigenous Solomon Islanders. But now there is common belief in Honiara that some Chinese people have found loopholes in the law.

Honiara streets are teeming with buses - dozens of these run down, dusty vans, crammed with people scoot pass continuously. Those with empty seats pull over to pick up queues of people who wait on the sides of the road for the next available bus.

The President of the Chinese Association, Matthew Quan, says he believes the ownership of these buses is an issue that has been brewing for several years.

MATTHEW QUAN: You get certain Asian people who get involved, who have the capital to buy the buses and then purchase the buses, and what they do is they get people to run the buses. At the end of the day the owner says, 'You give me 'X' amount of dollars and anything above and beyond that you keep yourself'.

The President of the civil society group, Forum Solomon Islands International, Redley Raramo, says he wants a thorough investigation into the issuing of licences for reserved businesses.

REDLEY RARAMO: It's a highjacking of the opportunities that our people are supposed to be exploiting for their benefit. And we don't blame the Chinese too as well because there are people within the government system that is facilitating this for them.

The chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce Jerry Tengemoana says foreign businessmen and investors are needed but they must comply with the law. He also says the authorities need to revisit the regulations and put more effort into enforcing them.

JERRY TENGEMOANA: I think that's the area that's really weak, the enforcement of their own laws. There's no point in putting through a piece of law if it's not enforced.

The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, Labour and Immigration, Heinz Vaekesa, says the Ministry is investigating the issue.

HEINZ VAEKESA: We do have some lead information that foreigners are actually coming under local business people or individuals that runs them. So they run under those business people.

Heinz Vaekesa says the ministry is also working on strategies to provide start up capital to help small indigenous businesses.