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Inspiring Women Leaders in Agriculture: Dr. Ramona Sulifoa – Person of the Year

It has been well documented over history that women can, and do, rise to the occasion in times of crisis, and we are seeing female leaders emerge within the traditionally male dominated Agriculture sector during a time when the safeguarding of our food and nutrition security against the impact of the global pandemic, and other natural disasters is a top concern for our country.

In her third year as the Assistant Chief Executive Officer (ACEO) for the newly established Agriculture Sector Co-ordination Division (ASCD), Dr Ramona Sulifoa is tackling the challenge head on by managing various projects benefiting the Agriculture and Fisheries sector including the large scale, World Bank and IFAD funded, Samoa Agriculture and Fisheries Productivity and Marketing Project (SAFPROM).

The total cost of the five-year SAFPROM project is USD$23.55 million and aims to increase the productivity and access to markets by selected producers, improve management of targeted productive natural resources, and provide an immediate response to an eligible crisis.

The establishment of the ASCD was funded by the SAFPROM Project and designed to better lead and co-ordinate all current and future projects impacting the sector, including large scale initiatives like SAFPROM. The division will formally be incorporated into the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) in 2022.

Team SAFPROM is made up of Upolu and Savaii based ASCD staff as well as various technical support staff from within the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries

“We are the eyes and ears of the agriculture and fisheries sector,“ said Dr Ramona, “our job is to support the sector by seeking out funding to address the gaps. We then co-ordinate, monitor and report the impact and outcomes of these projects linking it back to the overall sector plan of the Ministry.”

This year saw an urgent push from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to support locals returning to the land in order to develop their plantations for food security and income amidst the on-going global pandemic crisis. The SAFPROM Project signed in 2019 and implemented by MAF will not only support and strengthen the agriculture sector but seek to respond to the adverse effects of the global pandemic on Samoa’s economy over the next five years.

Over 350 Savaii farmers and fishers signed their MGP Agreement and have received the first tranche funding towards their farming and fishing developments.

Over the course of 2021, the Project has successfully provided business development trainings and  direct financial assistance through the Matching Grant Program to over 1,100 approved farmers and fishers to help develop their businesses. To date, the SAFPROM Project has boosted many local hardware, and supplies businesses by injecting over 2 million Tala (and counting) into the the struggling economy in its first delivery of grant assistance to farmers and fishers in Savaii.

Grant subsidies for over 800 Upolu-based farmers and fishers is expected to be rolled out in the first quarter of 2022 as well as other sub-projects planned under the SAFPROM.

Leading a large scale national project during an economic depression is not for the faint hearted but Dr Ramona’s passion to serve farmers and fishers has kept her focussed on leading her team through the many challenges of implementing SAFPROM.

“I believe Agriculture can be the mainstay of our economy. The concept cannot be realised without having people who see that same vision. At times it becomes difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but knowing that each paper signed, each approval takes us closer to reaching the end of that tunnel and that flickering light.”

“Growing up and experiencing first-hand the challenges that my family had to go through to make a living off agriculture has instilled in me the need to serve our farmers in any way I can and within my capacity. My current position allows me to do that, to serve knowing that I am working towards a bigger vision. At times I am mentally and physically fatigued, but I keep getting up knowing that at the end of the day, my small contribution is my daily prayer and I am working to serve my people.”

“Growing up and experiencing first-hand the challenges that my family had to go through to make a living off agriculture has instilled in me the need to serve our farmers in any way I can and within my capacity. ” – Dr Ramona Sulifoa

As a teenager, Dr Ramona developed her love for research from her parents and grew up appreciating the challenges they faced in raising a family while sustaining an income from farming.

“My dad really ignited that research spark and interest in the area of agriculture in me. My mum was one of the best sales people you could come across and she would always find ways to sell our vegetables and instilled in me the value of marketing products. The struggle on a daily basis to sell and sustain an income from farming was real! I remember having to sleep in the old Savalalo market with my mum when it used to be packed with farmers to ensure that we had a block to sell our vegetables the next day.”

Dr Ramona graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Agriculture at the University of South Pacific and went on to complete her Masters Degree in Agriculture, majoring in Agriculture Economics. Along her journey she also discovered a passion for being an educator, teaching Biology, Agriculture Science and Commercial Studies at Saint Joseph’s College.

Dr Ramona worked her way up the ranks taking up roles in national and regional organizations relating to Agriculture and Science including MAF, USP and eventually FAO. It was during her time at FAO that Dr Ramona realized that there were barriers to women becoming decision makers in Agriculture and in order to be heard, she needed to continue her academic journey at the PhD level. 

“I saw the need to equip myself with the correct credentials and tools so that I could be heard as a decision maker in the field of Agriculture. It is a field dominated by males and I saw the need for more females. It is also a field where the younger generation does not want to pursue as a career path both in the field.”

“I saw the need to equip myself with the correct credentials and tools so that I could be heard as a decision maker in the field of Agriculture. It is a field dominated by males and I saw the need for more females. It is also a field where the younger generation does not want to pursue as a career path both in the field.” – Dr Ramona Sulifoa

“I hope my choices will to be able to teach the younger generation about agriculture and its importance in the development of our country and I firmly believe that agriculture is the foundation of our Pacific Island economies; it just needs to be taken a lot more seriously as a career path and as a business venture.”

After completing her PhD in Natural Resources & Environmental Management at the University of Hawaii in 2017, under a Fulbright Scholarship, she went on to become the Head of the Agriculture Department at the Solomon Islands National University (SINU) cutting her teeth in management by juggling her duties as an Associate Dean and Senior Lecturer.

“While in the Solomon Islands, I kept looking for the opportunity to come back home to serve and I was very fortunate to have secured the position of Assistant Chief Executive Officer, Agriculture Sector Coordination Division, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.”

Dr Ramona believes the key to good leadership lies in seeing the true value of team work contributing to adapting and exploring new ideas, methods of working, and testing these out together to see what will work best.

“I am very results-focused and I want my team to be leaders, I do not like micro-managing my team’s work and believe that people need to lead and make mistakes along the way in order to learn. Growing up in a family where my father and mother raised us to be independent, to make our own decisions, and to follow what we wanted to achieve in life has really influenced who I am today.”

My biggest achievement so far in this journey is having the best team in place to push this project through the challenging times this year. We all are united under one vision and belief that we are contributing to serving our farmers and fishers as well as safeguarding our food and nutrition security now and in the future.”

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