Fijians Helping Fiji Cooperative spends $600,000

Epineri Taganesei shows their Stock Certificate. Picture: SIKELI QOUNADOVU

THE controversial Fijians Helping Fiji Cooperative spent $600,000 in two years and has now run out of money, in what its chairman has described as “a learning process”.

More than 5000 iTaukei farmers have paid a $120 membership fee to be FHFC members in the hope that FHFC would help them to export their produce to the US.

Bank records obtained by The Fiji Times show that between April 2015 and July 2016 FHFC collected $588,000, mostly in membership fees.
This account was then closed before FHFC opened another account with the current standing balance of $38.32. FHFC has exported only three containers of root crops to the US, in December 2015.

FHFC CEO Waisea Kikau, who could not be reached for comment, is understood to be residing in the US now, but chairman Ratu Meli Vesikula said FHFC’s money had been spent on operational costs, awareness programs and also exports.

“I must admit we rushed into things. So this is a learning process. As we speak, there has been no movement at all in the co-operative, as we are looking for finances again to revive the co-operative,” Ratu Meli said.

The co-operative was formed in 2015.

It claimed to be working in partnership with a US organisation called “Americans Helping America”, founded by businessman Dr Hellaman Hansen.

Mr Hansen was last December sentenced to 20 years’ jail in the US for immigration fraud.

A Facebook posting introducing FHFC said Mr Hansen would introduce the start-up capital of FHFC, which would set up supermarkets in Fiji and establish processing plants in “strategic locations” to assist farmers.

The posting said FHFC would also export Fiji food and commodities to the US, targeted at Fijian communities in the US and distributed through three large bulk stores in Sacramento, Santa Rosa and San Francisco in the US state of California.

FHFC’s objective was to improve rural development and reduce poverty by creating thousands of farming jobs in Fiji, the posting said.

“Lifetime membership” was offered for $100 with an annual membership fee of $20.

However, by January 2016 there was a split in FHFC’s leadership with executive members Suliasi Tamanivalu, Ratu Nimatari Colaudolu and others claiming they had been unfairly dismissed.

FHFC media liaison officer Isimeli Cerelala also pulled out, saying he did not like the way FHFC was being operated.

Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama also denied that FHFC had the endorsement of the Fiji Government, though Ratu Meli said he was aware of FHFC’s activities. In September 2016, police spokesman Ana Naisoro said FHFC was the subject of a fraud investigation.

Police when questioned again on the update of investigation, said the file was still open and were still conducting their investigations Records obtained by The Fiji Times indicate that there were large withdrawals from FHFC’s bank account in 2015, including more than $324,000 in cash cheques in one month.

When The Fiji Times visited the FHFC office on August 6, a young man there, said the organisation was still accepting new members.

A list of 222 people was posted on a noticeboard in the office.

These were identified as people who had paid their registration fees but who had not collected their membership documents.

According to a copy of the cooperatives bank statement from its account with Bank South Pacific, between April 27, 2015 and July 14, 2016, a total of $588,435.25 was deposited into account number 10953031, account name FIJIANS HELPING FIJI CO-OPERATIVE LIMITED, with the last deposit of $480 done on February 12, 2016.

As a result of continuous withdrawals, by June 30 of the same year only $6.65 was left in the account, before it was then closed.

Questions sent to the Permanent Secretary for Co-operatives remain unanswered.

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