From Mechanic to business magnate

by Zelda Green

When Jimmy Kuto started his mechanical repair business he literally had to carve his land from the jungle of Asimana – 50 km south of Malaita’s largest town Auki, in the Solomon Islands. He started with nothing. The country was in the middle of internal strife and Jimmy was in demand as a resourceful bush mechanic. But fixing engines in the tropical heat was hard work and he had a family of seven children to support plus another three they adopted. How was he to know, his wife Essie, would have not one, but two sets of twins??!!

His resourcefulness captured the attention of a local business starting up. Seeing his hands-on, hard-working potential they sent Jimmy to Canberra Australia – in the middle of winter! Poor Jimmy suffered climate shock but was undeterred! Jimmy was one of DME VCO’s “early adopters.” Despite the cold, he remained determined to make a success of his DME venture and he could immediately see its potential, not just for his family – but the whole village.

Fast forward from 2004 and the vacant piece of land carved from the jungle is now a vibrant, thriving village. There are new houses and neat gardens. There are solar panels and power, generators, mobile phones and kids in school uniforms going off to school. There is clean water, taps, pipes, tanks, and Jimmy has a fleet of cars and trucks running the 50 km from town to village, filled with people and produce. There are chickens, pigs and soon cattle. Business is booming and life is easier for all the people of Asimana, not luxurious, but not heartbreakingly poor either.

The trip to Australia was a breakthrough in Jimmy’s life. He came back a changed man, and although quiet, took to the task of leadership in his village. Navigating the responsibilities of business in a community that highly regards sharing is fraught with problems. Jimmy says he spends a lot of time talking to people, explaining what he does. He leads with humble, patient, generosity. His business and his community have thrived.

The Asimana DME Mill consists of a neat compound with three sheds each operating two presses, two drivers and two graters. Each week 26 or so barrels of pure, hand-pressed, extra virgin coconut oil get collected at 4am and sent by truck to Auki harbour, bound by boat to Honiara where the oil is exported to over 10 countries. Each barrel is currently worth nearly $1500 Solomon dollars. Each week, about $37K and over the course of a year, nearly $2M in revenue flows out to farmers, employees, businesses, women, young people and children. No wonder the village is thriving!

Jimmy’s eldest Daughter Matilda Kuta, her husband Charlie Bata, both in their mid-20’s and their 19-year-old 2IC Mary Iro are running the daily operations of the DME, with over 30 employees and thousands of people reliant on the flow-on effects. This includes coconut growers, transport operators, piggeries, chicken farmers and builders, who benefit from the increased cash flow which enables people to improve their modest housing. There’s also a timber and milling operation. It’s a case of, from little things, big things grow.

Over the 12 years, the steady stream of income from the DME has transformed the lives of thousands of people in over 40 villages like Jimmy’s. It’s not a hand-out in one of the Pacific’s most aid-dependent countries, but a hand-up. People are working hard, making their own decisions and doing business that suits their priorities and their culture.

Jimmy’s last purchase was a cow and a bull. Now 44 years old, and he wants to add cattle farming to his business operations. They will be ideal for keeping the understory beneath the coconut trees mown, provide meat, milk and other transforming industries. I can’t wait to get back and see what happens next.