Learning that flowers can be more than a pretty backdrop, Fijian housewives are sowing the seeds of a backyard industry

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Just off the highway that roars through the outer Suva suburb of Nakasi, on a dead-end street near a busy gas station, Laite Naivalu lives in an acre of Eden. Her familyıs small, simply built house is surrounded by tropical opulence: harlequin-colored crotons, ginger plants unfolding crimson fans, waxy pink anthuriums like heart-shaped candle holders, spiky orange-plumed strelitzia, heliconias heavy with bunches of red-and-yellow claws, and, beneath shady mango trees, white, cobra-hooded peace lilies and massed caladiums and dieffenbachia, their broad, soft leaves stippled purple, pink and cream.

Three years ago, Naivalu was living in a government flat in Suva, raising her four children and dreaming of a garden of her own. When the family moved to this block of land, she could hardly wait to get her hands dirty. Husband Misieli is an agriculture official, but ³that doesnıt mean he has a green thumb,² Naivalu says: the garden was her domain. Back then, it ³was a hobby,² she recalls. ³I just like plants, seeing them grow and seeing why one plant is healthier than another.² Today itıs a great deal more. Out of the once hard earth has sprung a second income for the family and, for Naivalu, friendships, confidence, and a new dream. ³I have in mind,² says the longtime housewife, ³to excel in the business world.²

Surrounded by blooms whose eye-catching shapes and colors have cool-climate florists itching for their secateurs, indigenous Fijians are belatedly discovering the commercial value of the floral beauty theyıve always taken for granted. ³Buying and selling flowers and plants is not part of our culture,² says Naivalu. ³We have gardens to decorate the outside of the house, but we get the plants from friends. And we donıt bring flowers from outside to inside.² In the late ı90s, around the time Naivalu turned her first soil, that began changing. Young men took up buying bouquets for their girlfriends; church groups vied to outdo each otherıs flower arrangements; homemakers began planning their gardens, not leaving them to chance. The biggest change came from a government drive to boost tourism: town centers and the airport were adorned with thousands of plants, and hotels and resorts were encouraged to beautify their grounds.

One day, a resort landscaper was driving by the Naivalusı when, through their wire fence, he glimpsed rows and rows of colorful crotons‹just the plants he needed. He came in and asked if he could buy a few dozen. A few days later, he ordered some indoor palms. Realizing that she was growing money, Naivalu began propagating furiously, asking friends for cuttings and fashioning cheap pots from black plastic sheeting (she now has 70 varieties of crotons and 10 different palms). Before long, the landscaper and his associates were ordering hundreds of plants at a time. ³So I encouraged my friends to grow for the demand,² she says. ³If they didnıt have the right plants, I gave them cuttings.²

Those friends‹and their friends‹have since formed a floriculture club, one of many now flourishing in Fiji. There are 25 members, and Naivalu is the president. Their aim, she says, is to learn more about gardening and profit from the knowledge. ³We are really knitted together as a group,² she says, ³because we all share and help each other.² Now, she adds, ³we have such a big range that if a customer is looking for any kind of plant, one of my ladies will have it.²

On a cool Friday evening, the members gather on the Naivalusı palm-fringed porch for their fortnightly meeting. Sitting on grass mats, the barefoot women‹teachers, secretaries, cleaners and housewives‹pray before passing around tinned-prawn sandwiches, coconut pudding and milky coffee. While frogs croak in the darkness and children giggle indoors, they take notes in old diaries while a government official explains the pros and cons of forming a cooperative. An expert is invited to most meetings, to talk about compost or soil chemistry or pest control. The members also go on outings to commercial nurseries (Fiji has several, all run by Europeans or Indo-Fijians).

In May, they attended a small-business workshop. ³That was really inspiring,² says Naivalu. ³We learned about pricing and bookkeeping and reinvesting, and how to get a loan. That really galvanized us to do this properly, as a business.² Says Indo-Fijian member Vidya Singh: ³Itıs hard for Fijians to understand business principles. Theyıre always giving away plants, and they donıt save for tomorrow. But they are learning.²

Now, says Naivalu, the members want to buy some land for a cooperative nursery. They also hope, with the aid of a commercial nursery, to start growing flowers for export. ³It was only a small thing at first,² Naivalu says of the club, holding her hands a few inches apart. ³Now it is growing and growing.² And her dreams are growing with it.