Explaining the why: Mere Lakeba

by Lisa Williams-Lahari | 9 March 2021 | Moana Voices

Mere Lakeba, Country Director, Conservation International–Fiji

FFA’s Moana Voices series on women shaping the future of oceanic fisheries is edited, researched and produced by Lisa Williams. This interview for Moana Voices 2021 edition is with Mere Lakeba, of Fiji. Ms Lakeba was Director for Fisheries in the Fijian Ministry of Fisheries at the time of the interview, and is now Country Director, Conservation International–Fiji. The interview is published here to mark International Women’s Day.

“I think the friction that can emerge around the age gap in Pacific office cultures requires clear communication on roles and demands a huge amount of respect between colleagues as people.”

I began my journey with the fisheries sector in 2012, managing an aquaculture station and implementing one of our programs within the ministry. At the time, there were several young women graduates coming out of the university and looking for work. Fisheries were basically male-dominated, and it recruited graduates who were eager to make our mark in the world. Looking back from where I am now, as Director for Fisheries, I see that many of those whom I entered the fisheries sector with have ventured to other sectors and professions.

I have been hooked by the exposure to working with communities. It certainly was not about the pay packet back then; it was purely trying to make a difference. Talking to people, explaining to them the reasons for why and how we do things. In hindsight, I feel that this is probably the biggest gap there is in our line of work.

In 2012, I was more involved with control and compliance work, ensuring that our fishers were licensed, and through observation and dialogue, I noticed that they would constantly enquire as to why we were doing this, why was licensing necessary, why was government exerting mechanisms and measures over something they saw as their resources. So, I have always enjoyed that challenge of explaining the why. Why fisheries does this, who it benefits, and how the rules help with resource management. We play crucial roles of conservators and stewards of the resources. Simultaneously, those conservation and management roles are parallel with the development of the resource for livelihoods.

So, always, my flagship is just to explain the why. And then that is when people begin to understand their part in the bigger picture.

Over the years, I have progressed and learned through my experiences working with communities and stakeholders across the board. I have concluded that when people understand the why of something, they are more receptive, they are more engaged. I am adamant that this is to key to any development or any work with communities.

Keep in mind when you are trying to initiate anything in fisheries resources, you are pointing at something that is innate to our people. When the questions rush at me, I try to respond knowing they are asking from this core question: “Why would I change something that my ancestors have been doing?” It is important to focus on explaining the impacts and benefits of our work, as opposed to pushing a “do this or else” point of view.

My approach has been one of listening, and inclusivity. These are two tools passed to me from my Dad. He is someone I always look up to, and he constantly insists that I keep the big picture in mind and step away from ego. Always look at an issue from the organisation or holistic, connected point of view, he would say. Never look at things in silos; never look at something as your own. Look at what happens to a whole organisation and make decisions that benefit that organisation – of people, of families, of groups.

And it has brought me a long way. At university, I learned about science, I learned about chemistry and biology and all these things. People skills were not part of that curriculum. Yet in any given part of any day, this is probably 90% of my core work.

Staying people-focused along with a priority on what benefits all rather than what benefits the self have helped to bring me to that point where I was the youngest head of division, in my 30s, and already in a management role spending most of my time working with seasoned practitioners, more experienced officers who were fishers before I even entered the service.

I think the friction that can appear around the age gap in Pacific office culture requires clear communication on roles and demands a huge amount of respect between colleagues as people. I enjoy the one-on-one meetings with staff and value that time with them, reporting on their workday or any challenges they are experiencing. For me, it is back to valuing the people factor in what we do. That is probably the key to anything. Although the goal is to achieve program targets, I do not worry over them. Those are just numbers. It is the people who will deliver the targets, who are my focus. If they know I am understanding of their personal space, they trust me more and show it in terms of delivering targets. I have been told I am the first woman in the post of Director for Fisheries, and I am confident it is these approaches of helping individual people see how great they can be, how important their work is in the big picture, which has helped me to this point.

Remaining relevant is a big part of work in today’s world. As Director for Fisheries, it has been a recent deep dive into fisheries in terms of the offshore tuna fishery. In the lead-up to this, I attended offshore workshops and training, even though I was still in a core role around aquaculture and inshore fisheries compliance. At the time, tuna fisheries were not part of my work or my core role, but I made an effort and a commitment that one day I was going to gain more experience outside of my comfort zone.

Remaining relevant for me is about being able to dialogue across the sector with any stakeholder and having a certain knowledge of what the issues are. I read up, I asked, I consulted, on anything I did not know.

The biggest lesson from my journey in fisheries so far is that working in isolation never works. In field work, especially, when working across Fiji away from headquarters, I have found this to be true. But your hands and feet are the people around you. I have found stakeholder and networking skills are a big strength, along with never being afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Some would call it a weakness, but it is just a learning opportunity for me.

I think the most amazing thing about oceanic fisheries work – and it is nothing fancy and nothing big – is just the structure, organisation and sharing across the region and identifying the need to collaborate, to compromise and to share.

I recognised at my very first meeting as director that all countries in the region vary, in terms of development. It is a statement you hear in many Pacific meetings, but for oceanic fisheries, it is a reality we acknowledge every time we sit down to work towards stronger national positions through regional fisheries cooperation. At every meeting, I look around the table and see how we offer each other strength in solidarity. Working in aquaculture, I had drilled down into the national point of view, national aspirations, and national focus. It is the most amazing thing to be there at the regional table sharing Fiji’s experiences with other nations who have their own plans for the same resource we share.

I have never been so proud to be a Pacific Islander, and offshore fisheries brings that out. And while I experienced the truth of it during my years working with inshore fisheries, sharing and connecting with stakeholders is of utmost importance. For me, it is not only about the sciences, the expertise, because you can have a brilliant team on board, yet, if we do not connect policy to people, our work is like a fashion fad. It will die out when we do.

When I look at the future and see the issues around food security, social security, the future of fisheries, again I place the importance of individual action into the equation. Whatever we do, the fish can look after themselves in their ecosystems. They know how to balance themselves in their niche habitats and ecosystem, even as external factors like fisheries methods, marine pollution and climate change intrude into their habitats.

It is us who need sorting out. Fisheries management is no longer a management of fisheries: there is such a pull from climate change and oceans, food security and economic forecasting, the current COVID-19 pandemic feeding into more crises, but we need to ensure a lot of focus remains with people. Fisheries is always going to be about balancing a lot of factors in the direction of economic growth and keeping people fed. Striking that balance is a lot of work for Pacific Island economies like Fiji, where so many livelihoods depend on economic growth, and expectations are high for leaders to deliver that.

We have seen a lot of focus around the table, including a call for domestication of longline fisheries, and what a predicted loss of up to 50% of coral cover in the future is going to do for food security among our coastal communities. There are no overnight solutions. I do not know all the answers. But the process is going to involve working together, profiling and feedback, and recognising there is no “one size fits all” solution, even within our countries.

I believe profiling is core because you quickly work out who is the most vulnerable in our communities and can keep their priorities and needs in mind.

Fiji is blessed to have a lot of opportunities in the fisheries sector. And that is across all our three fisheries: offshore, inshore and aquaculture. In these communities, it is important to profile and gain an idea of the culture of fishing in diverse communities and how people understand fishing. Is it something you do for the table, for sale, or both? Is it a major impact on many lives beyond keeping a family supplied with their protein intake or cultural sharing practices?

If there is something that I am passionate about, it is the satisfaction of positive impact. You do not always see the impact on lives when ticking your targets. I want to know how many people are getting more money after any development intervention. More money does not mean more money in the bank, it can mean being able to provide our children with better schools, equipping them to be tomorrow’s leaders. It may be better access to transport to access better hospitals, measures like that. I have had women from communities tell me how a project has allowed them to have a stronger voice in their communities, and that is inspiring. That is impact to me.

Emotionally, they relay that: “Before, I sat in the corner at the meeting; now I talk and take questions at the meeting.” Or to be able to bring fish to feasts, or enable education in boarding schools. It’s the impact that matters.

All the bigger things in the world of fisheries, they all start small. Through the individuals, the families, the families that make up us, the whole of Fiji. If our people are satisfied, then that is connecting the dots for me.

Finally, I have a lot of people to acknowledge and thank throughout my professional journey, who have helped form my logic and decision-making today. My mentors, professional counterparts and colleagues (both past and present), my blessed family and loved ones, all of whom have sacrificed time, love and energy to help me stay focused and deliver my level best at all times. Most importantly, the unwavering support of my dearest husband throughout my career and handling both our parental roles for our five jewels (three boys and two girls) during my 18 months of overseas study is something I am forever grateful for and is definitely a significant factor to my achievements today.