Leading Apia up the Tokelau garden path

Once again the inimitable Seia Mikaele Maiava of Nukunonu, Tokelau is blazing a trail in organic gardening, at the Nukunonu compound in Moamoa, Apia this time. Mika is currently manager of that compound, which can provide accommodation for travelling Tokelauans. On Saturday he hosted the “Informal gardeners” groups of Apia to demonstrate just how much success can be gained by trial & error, persistence and sheer determination.
Left: Seia Mikaele Maiava in traditional Tokelauan dress, with his baby son Michael welcoming visitors of the Informal Gardeners group.
Visitors at the Tokelau compound in Moamoa, Apia, which is managed by Mika and his wife Bella.
Dressed in traditional Tokelau costume, Mika received about 40 gardening enthusiasts in Apia and led them around the compound. He showed us where he had transformed an unused sports field into a productive taro plantation (for export to Nukunonu). He also used paths and margins to plant productive crops of pineapple, pawpaw, lemongrass and much more.

With the assistance of two Samoan staff, Pelesauma from Luatuanuu and Mila from Savaii, he had also set up a very productive vegetable and herbs garden. This used mostly cuttings obtained from other members of the group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/806887059358983/) which is led by agricultural adviser Seumanutafa Dr Malcolm Hazelman, Mika’s unfailing mentor.
Mika explaining the secret of his success in growing herbs in bags under shadecloth. On the left, his mentor Malcolm Hazelman.
Looking up close how a keyhole garden is constructed; with Malcolm standing in the keyhole shape for easy access to the central compost bin.
Next-door to the garden Mika built an area where the pigs could roam without undoing all the good gardening work, being fed on coconuts and kitchen scraps that were unsuitable for composting. Various secrets to making good compost and fertiliser were shared, such as making fertiliser tea of class clippings and producing compost from fish remains and sawdust (to stop it from being smelly.

The true secret of the production success is keyhole gardening, an African concept to which Mika was introduced by Malcolm. Mika first put this to practice on the infertile coral rock substrate that forms most of the Tokelau atolls, with astonishing results (see previous story).

The keyhole gardening project even features on a recent issue of New Zealand postage stamps. They show the various stages of creating a garden of the right size, putting in the right water-retaining substrate, with the soil surface at the right slope, and a mesh basket in the centre in which kitchen and garden waste is deposited. With regular watering this organic matter will decompose to compost and fertilise the soil in the circle around it so that lush crops can be grown and harvested… and as Mika has demonstrated in his home town Nukunonu, this will even work on a rocky bottom!

The Tokelau keyhole garden stamp set of 2015.
So successful was the project that the youth on all the three Tokelau atolls: Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo, are now setting up such gardens. This was made possible thanks to the enthusiastic input from United Nations Volunteer Whelma Villar-Kennedy also.

She saw the potential of such projects for improving work prospects, food security and health of the youth. She managed to get UN sponsorship to make this a regular feature. (After 18 months of voluntary work for Tokelau, Whelma will soon return to live in Ireland; she will be missed around the place - but has left an important challenge to the Tokelau youth to hone their gardening skills.)

Back in Apia, the Informal Gardeners group exchanged know-how – and cuttings of crops, herbs and ornamental plants. All were greatly encouraged by Mika’s success in transforming spare lawn and waste land to productive gardens. It’s an example to be followed by each in their own way and place. With perseverance, it’s a sure way to healthy living.
Whelma Villars-Kennedy, another mover and shaker in Tokelau’s development of keyhole gardens (among many other things during her UN volunteering stint in Samoa).
Story and pictures by Jaap (‘iapi’) Jasperse, 18 June 2016
Published verbatim in the Samoa Observer of 22 June 2016, plus a version translated into Samoan