A week in Kiribati
Where & what is Kiribati?
Kiribati (the Republic of Kiribati) is a sovereign state in the central Pacific Ocean with a population of around 110,000. It consists of 32 islands (atolls and reefs) covering a huge area of 3.5km2. I visited the main island of Tarawa in October 2018 and June 2019. This was not a holiday, but a work trip. A few years ago, I had never heard of Kiribati. I come from the UK, so the Pacific Islands were, for me, a totally unknown region and something I only saw in TV programmes or documentaries about intrepid and adventurous travelling. The idea that I could one day find myself on a business trip to a tiny and remote Pacific Island State was remote at best.
How did I get here?
Thanks to my business partner, Robert Felgate, I found myself with the opportunity to provide consulting services to the Kiribati Insurance Corporation (KIC). Rob had been working with the KIC since the early 1990s as part of his role as a reinsurance broker for Willis Re. The KIC is a state-owned company that was established in 1981. It is the only insurance company in Kiribati, providing a range of insurance products such as Fire, Motor, Marine and General Liability.
Over the years, Rob has been instrumental in setting up reinsurance support for the KIC. This has helped the KIC to grow from providing a few hundred dollars of insurance cover to around 800 million today. Despite its small size, the KIC punches above its weight and plays a key role in supporting the development of the Kiribati economy and the social welfare of the state.
When Rob first came to me with the opportunity to work with the KIC, I had no idea what to expect. This was certainly new territory for me. The KIC were looking for consultants to review their business, identify and generate new business opportunities and to provide technical training support. I jumped at the chance to do something completely new. Working with Rob would also be a great learning experience as he has around 30 years of experience working in the Pacific Islands.
A key attraction to working with the KIC was the opportunity to work with them at their head office in Tarawa. The island is the capital of Kiribati and lies about half way between Australia and Hawaii. To get there you need to fly from Sydney to Nadi (Fiji) and then onwards to Tarawa. The total travel time is the best part of a day, but it feels adventurous, like you are setting out to an unknown frontier. There are also only two flights per week, which means that you need to commit around one week to your visit.
Island Life & Climate Change
My overwhelming first impression was of the warmth and hospitality of the Kiribati people. Big smiles and big welcomes greeted us from beginning to end. The generosity of the people was also unprecedented. Here is a nation, let’s be honest, that doesn’t have the so-called creature comforts and facilities that we take for granted in many of our societies. Kiribati is mostly a subsistence economy with very few people employed in what we would consider to be traditional jobs. Yet, the people are extremely friendly to visitors from the so-called developed world and appear to have a happy nature. This is my genuine impression rather than a romanticised view of life in the pacific islands.
Kiribati doesn’t really have any tourism to speak of, so foreign visitors consist mainly of aid workers, government officials and business advisors. With that said, there was no way I was going to spend time in Kiribati without being a bit of a tourist! Fortunately, the KIC were keen to show us around. The highlight of this was a day boat trip that they organised across the lagoon to the other side of Tarawa. On the way, we stopped at what the locals call the ‘disappearing island’. As the name suggests, this is an island that has been gradually reclaimed by the sea. It is also a stark reminder of the ever-present threat to Kiribati from rising sea-levels resulting from the effects of climate change.
I asked some of the KIC team about their thoughts concerning climate change. They spoke openly about the threat to their way of life. To some extent, they appeared to be almost resigned to the fact that their nation and culture is in danger. There appeared to be a sense that there is nothing that they can do about it and that they are at the mercy of how the developed nations choose to deal with climate change. With that said, there was no sense at all that the people of Kiribati are prepared to think about the possibility of having to leave their home. They are a proud nation who wish to protect their culture and identity.
Welcome to the Kiribati Insurance Corporation (KIC)
The determination of the Kiribati people was clearly evident in the day-to-day life of the KIC. It is a well-run and ambitious company with a fantastic and hands-on board. The management and staff are hard-working and enthusiastic, always keen to learn. They greatly appreciate people visiting and spending time with them, especially as their exposure to the wider world can be limited at times. For our part, our outlook on life has certainly been broadened by spending time with the KIC team, by learning about their challenges and way of life.
As well as reviewing their current business, we have explored new ventures in marine insurance, medical insurance and micro-insurance. I am delighted to say that inuRE has an ongoing relationship with the KIC and that they are entrusting us with helping them to develop new products.
One of the KIC’s main challenges is developing awareness of the benefits of insurance. Whilst their business has been growing impressively, much of Kiribati remains uninsured. For a largely subsistence society, insurance is either simply not a priority or is an unknown concept.
We all seen the great benefits of insurance, but how do you persuade people with very limited funds to part with money in return for an intangible product? This is certainly why the focus on micro-insurance is so important. But a new product on its own is unlikely to be successful if the target demographic does not understand it. The KIC understand this and has a strong commitment to marketing and developing awareness campaigns. This highlights the clear benefit of having a local insurer which understands its society and way of thinking.
At the end of our visits to the KIC and Tarawa, I have reflected on my experience as I returned to the first-world comforts of Sydney. I wondered how easy it is for me to spend a little bit of time in Kiribati and then say that my way of thinking has changed……….as I prepared to re-immerse myself in the secure, material and on-demand society that I call home. I’m not saying that I am now willing or motivated to leave all of that behind in search of a ‘simpler’ life.
I realise that while life in places like Kiribati might appear to be free of all the mad-made ‘stresses’ of many of our societies, life there is tough. Aspects of our life such as shelter, education, health, food and employment are not to be taken for granted. But the main thing that stays with me from my experience in Kiribati is what one of the members of the KIC team said to me. They know that we, in places such as Sydney, have access to more of, well, everything! But they love their life in Kiribati – it is their home.
Author: Gabriel Manoughian