Taki MaiTaki Mai

By Zane Yoshida

The Way Forward For Fijian Kava

After the trials faced by the Fijian kava industry in recent months, it was great to see one of our ‘elite’ kava saplings emerge from the lab this week.

Our previous post focused on the present kava shortages. The Fijian kava industry has been hit hard by the devastating cyclone back in March.

This one is all about the way forward for kava, and its bright future.

Rehabilitating the kava industry: an opportunity

As the Fijian kava industry rebuilds, there is an opportunity to establish itself firmly as the world leader in the production of high quality or ‘elite’ kava.

Already known for its high quality amongst Pacific kava-producing nations, steps are being taken to up the ante in quality in Fiji.

As reported in a previous post, South pacific Elixirs has been working with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) on an ‘elite kava’ project that has been co-funded by the Australian Government.

The project, called Development of a mass propagation system for elite varieties of Piper methysticum (kava), is now starting to bear fruit. The photo above, taken in the lab at the University of the South Pacific, is evidence of this.

The project set out to establish a rapid propagation system for clean planting material. Its over-arching aim was to provide world-leading kava quality and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Fiji.

New kava propagation methods

Traditionally, kava propagation uses the stem of the plant to make cuttings. This may increase the risk of disease being passed on from plant to plant.

The production of a disease-free, high quality kava is seen as vital to protecting the future of the kava industry. As exports rise and world attention increasingly focuses on kava as bans are lifted, the need to maintain the highest quality possible is in everybody’s interests.

The stated goal our project is:

“…to develop an efficient and effective propagation system for ensuring a sustained and uniform supply of quality planting material of the selected variety.”

High quality kava cultivars help to eliminate the problem of ‘Kava dieback’. This is a rapidly spreading black soft rot of the stem tissue. Symptoms appear on the leaves a few weeks before the visible rot starts, and it is a problem around the entire Pacific area.

Back in 2005, around 40% of the Fijian kava crop was wiped out. When problems arise, it’s a long way back for the kava industry, because kava does not produce seeds and it takes several years to grow.

When the problems are as severe as those experienced in the wake of Cyclone Winston, a lack of high quality stems available for propagation exacerbates the situation.

Our solution creates tissue cultures that maintain a constant supply of high quality, disease-free new kava plants:

“Once ‘clean’ kava plants are established in the nursery, the growth of axillary buds can be accelerated to produce material from which tissue cultures can be established.”

Since Winston then, the program has taken on new meaning as a way forward for the Fijian kava industry as a whole. We are in the process of training others in these propagation methods so that they can be used more in commercial nurseries.

It’s onwards and upwards for the Fijian kava industry from here- and we are proud to be part of the solution.

By Zane Yoshida

What is Elite Kava & Why is the Australian Government Interested?

You know we are always talking about the quality of the elite kava in Taki Mai supplements? Well, this is no empty brag – we can back it up!

Earlier this year the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research produced its final report on the elite kava project co-funded by the Australian Government and South Pacific Elixirs.

The project, called Development of a mass propagation system for elite varieties of Piper methysticum(kava) is raising the bar for kava quality in the South Pacific.

What is the purpose of the ‘Elite Kava’ project?

The project was established to support the development of the kava market in Fiji, through its focus on a rapid propagation system for clean planting material.

This contributes to the wider PARDI (Pacific Agribusiness Research for Development Initiative) goals of supporting stronger economic growth in the Pacific, and improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.

As the report says:

“Such a system will support the commercial production of a high quality kava extract – essential to secure and maintain markets.”

So the ultimate goal of the project, through maintaining a high quality tissue culture, is:

“…to develop an efficient and effective propagation system for ensuring a sustained and uniform supply of quality planting material of the selected variety.”

The problem of disease

When you see kava growing it looks very hardy and strong. However, like any plant material, it can be susceptible to disease and it is vital for the future of the kava industry to tackle this problem to maintain its reputation.

As the report acknowledges:

“Provision of an adequate and continuous volume of disease-free, good quality planting material is a significant constraint in establishing any commercial kava enterprise. Kava dieback is a problem in many countries in the Pacific, and has been known to wipe out production.”

Kava dieback is a rapidly spreading black soft rot of the stem tissue. Symptoms of Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV) appear on the leaves a few weeks before the visible rot starts.

In Fiji in 2005 around 40% of the crop was wiped out and entire production was devastated in some areas. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that kava does not produce seeds and grows relatively slowly, limiting the number of stem cuttings available for planting.

What were the main project activities?

The threat of disease means that virus testing and tissue culture are important for developing an effective propagation system to generate disease-free kava planting material.

By testing kava stems and confirming that they are disease-free, these stems can be used to create tissue cultures for further propagation:

“Once ‘clean’ kava plants are established in the nursery, the growth of axillary buds can be accelerated to produce material from which tissue cultures can be established.”

Though the word ‘kava’ is widely and generally used for the root of the piper methysticum plant, it actually has many varieties. The project collected planting material of four varieties and soil samples from sites around Levuka, the capital of the island of Ovalau.

Leaf tissue from the kava planting material was tested for disease and two different propagation methods were evaluated, before tissue cultures were established from plants in the screenhouse.

A training workshop was also held in Levuka so that the successful propagation methods could be used in the commercial nursery, and to educate the local industry on early disease detection.

With the adoption of the new propagation method by the commercial nursery, South Pacific Elixirs is proud to be leading the way with elite kava production in Fiji.

Kava is such an important crop for the livelihoods of people of Fiji and the South Pacific that more initiatives like this are needed to keep on raising the bar for kava quality.

The Way Forward For Fijian Kava
What is Elite Kava & Why is the Australian Government Interested?