Cane toads: creating employment from a pest

9 October 2012
ITC News
Poor communities in Fiji find ways of generating income from surprising places with ITC's help.

Sugar exports have been the mainstay of community livelihoods in the two largest Fijian islands for many years, but these days the industry is changing. Families need to find alternative sources of income to complement that derived directly from growing sugar cane. While preparing a broad sector development intervention for financing by the European Union, specialists from the International Trade Centre (ITC) found themselves one rainy night driving a country back road in Fiji trying to avoid hundreds of large reptilian creatures hopping across the street.

Originally imported in 1953 from Hawaii to reduce insect infestation in the country’s sugar cane plantations, the cane toad population is now estimated in millions. Universally loathed, they have now become a pest – eating both good and bad insects and other things and growing to a very large size.

‘Useless toads’

Most Fijians believe that the toads are of little or no use at all. But that could be about to change. Following the rainy night encounter ITC specialists helped a local community to catch and prepare some examples of the toad skins to determine their market potential and value. Several countries, including Australia, China, Indonesia and Vietnam, are already producing toad leather on an industrial scale.

Ralph Arbeid, who led the ITC market research, said: “When presented with the Fijian variety of toad skin it was immediately clear that some leading designers were interested to work with it and were also sympathetic to supporting the communities involved”. Now, ITC is working with communities in Fiji to develop this pilot into sustainable commercial enterprise, not only to produce tanned skins but also hand-made products for retail.

Toads can walk as well as hop

Scaling-up the initial experiment ITC trained 19 people from three communities to tan the skins from harvested toads using readily available local equipment. Five of these people were women and eight were young men. Expertise in the blending of environmentally safe chemicals was provided by specialists from Italy at no cost. After the tanning process, several local artisans produced traditional handicraft items from the leather with stunning results. In addition, a well-known shoe-making brand with a manufacturing base in Nadi, Fiji’s third-largest conurbation, has decided to feature local toad leather in its boots.

Toad skins are useful for a range of products: clothes, handbags, telephone and tablet covers. Ralph Arbeid, who is leading the design of the ITC community project, said: “Since we started working in Fiji, I have been amazed at the dexterity and commitment of the volunteers from the communities. The quality of work is extending the variety of possible uses and the potential for additional value to be generated in the communities.”

This is a timely intervention because rural incomes from cane growing have been falling. The European Union-funded Accompanying Measures for Sugar Programme was set-up to support improvement in efficiencies in sugar production and also complementary sources of income for the communities involved. The production of toad skins and associated products can provide much-needed employment for young people, women and disabled persons who do not currently have many other options. A co-operative has been formed for the 19 participants who are now producing leather of excellent quantity. Tanning is currently carried out in households in rural sugar cane areas. A project-funded centre for tanning is foreseen to maintain quality continuity.

Unlike trade in many other reptiles, the capture and use of toads is, according to all sources, sustainable: one female can lay up to 40,000 eggs each year. Only mature toads with a body of more than 10cm are taken so there are many more new toads arriving than tanning co-operatives would be able to take for production The initial target is to produce 15,000 skins a year. The profit generated from this activity can provides participant’s with an annual income more than three times that of an average sugar cane worker and from a relatively small investment.