An industry waiting to set sail


smDSC03608They are not lucky. Because they live on man-made islands…but they do sweat their guts out – no matter how hard and for how long – that is why they are about the hardest working people in the Solomon Islands. For them, survival is truly for the fittest. They don’t have much land, but the sea is their provider. They go out fishing everyday. They sell fish everyday. They break, grind and rub shell money everyday. That is their way of life. That is how they survive the daily struggles in this country where the currency value is one of the lowest in the region.

I am talking about the people of LangaLanga lagoon in Malaita Province. Although fishing and shell money are the best-known trademarks of the Solomon Islands, the people of LangaLanga lagoon have an informal ship-building industry that is only found in this small patch of Malaita Province and could generate millions of dollars.

smDSC03611Take a one-hour boat ride from Auki, the capital of Malaita, through the LangaLanga lagoon and you will see why. On almost all the man-made islands there you can see huge tall sago palm houses with boat structures. Some of these boats, I am told, have been sitting there for the last 15 to 20 years or even longer.

“That’s right. This happens because there is no money. But the ships you see sitting in those torn leaf houses will be complete one day,” Michael Talo told me. Mr Talo is one of these self taught ship builders of Lalana Island who is soon to launch a ship he built with the support of his brothers and relatives on their island. He revealed that the long delays happened as builders stopped work to raise funds through fishing or shell money making activities.

“Once there is enough money to buy timber, they will go and buy what timber they can from those who own the resources on the mainland. Then they will go back to their boats and add whatever pieces of timber they have been able to get and revert to fishing or making shell money to raise the funds for the next lot of timber. That is the cycle,” Talo said.

smDSC03621The LangaLanga ship builders are well known in the Solomon Islands. The likes of the late John Fera, who became very successful until his death a few years ago, had a flourishing business. He built a number of wooden boats, large enough to ferry copra, timber, cocoa, cargo and passengers around this nation of scattered islands, which spans 133 million square kilometers of ocean. There are one or two other success stories, all the result of perseverance and hard work.

Michael Talo is one of those who had worked for the late Fera in his boat-building yard in the LangaLanga lagoon.

smDSC03627“After having spent a number of years there, I felt that I should get out and try my hand at a boat of my own,” he said. Talo said the idea to venture into this risky enterprise was born out of two bags of flour which someone discarded because they got wet while being unloaded at Auki wharf.

“I took the bags and cooked ring cakes out of them. It was while cooking the cakes that the idea to try my hand at building my own boat began to take hold. So I quietly kept the idea to myself. As soon as I had raised a bit of money from the two bags, I began to look at other money making ideas such as fishing and making shell money. Once I had enough money, I went to one village on the mainland and asked if anyone had a good sized vitex tree. When one family told me they had such a tree, I paid them five hundred dollars and then brought my brothers to chop the tree down and cut it up to the right size. So, out of that tree, we cut a keel and other important pieces to start off this boat you see here,” he told me.

Mr Talo said it took him and his brothers more than twelve years to build his boat. Talo, a graduate builder from the former Solomon Islands Technical Institute in the 70s, explains he moved to boat building because he wanted to work with crooked structures.

smDSC03639“I enjoyed building houses after graduating but after a while, it became so mundane,” he admitted. “That is why I joined John Fera’s boat building team.

Asked whether or not the government had supported the boat building industry in the LangaLanga lagoon, Mr Talo said as far as he knew, there was no support at all.

“I don’t know why. But I strongly feel that this is an industry that could make millions for the country if the government supports it. This is a homegrown industry and the money that comes from it will remain in the country and support the economy,” he said.

Government support would encourage more people in the country to try their hand at this industry and provide more boats for the growing population of the Solomon Islands. “This would be a better alternative to logging, I believe,” said Talo.

The skills that the LangaLanga men have today originated from their involvement with the Buma ship yard that used to be operated by the Catholic Church and where a lot of young men were employed. “When the shipyard closed, the men came back home with those skills,” explained Talo.

smDSC03630There area two other shipyards on Gela Island in the Central Islands – the Sasape Marina, used to be owned and operated by the government and Taroniara is owned and operated by the Church of Melanesia. “There are a lot of people with skills to build boats but they cannot apply them without the necessary support. I strongly feel that if these people were assisted to build boats, this country wouldn’t need to spend millions of dollars buying old ships from overseas countries,” he said. He adds that a number of business people in Vanuatu have expressed interest in the wooden boats they are building.

Michael Talo’s newly built boat is already floating on the sea, waiting for a few more minor fittings before starting operations. A necessary industry for the island countries of the Pacific, just waiting for a little support to flourish.

Story and photography by Julian Makaa.