Australia and Solomon Islands are working together to increase cocoa production and improve road rehabilitation and maintenance in Malaita. This partnership will provide jobs for Solomon Islanders, economic stimulus for Malaita and better access for rural communities to towns and markets.

Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Hon Duncan Kerr SC, met Solomon Islands Acting Prime Minister, Hon Fred Fono MP, on Thursday to discuss the commencement of work on this project. "Australia recognises the importance of supporting economic growth across Solomon Islands and is pleased to assist the Solomon Islands Government to rehabilitate existing cocoa crops and expand cocoa production in Malaita," said Mr Kerr. "We will also boost our funding to the Community Sector Program (CSP) for roads to help ensure people in Malaita can get their produce to markets."

Acting Prime Minister, Hon Fred Fono, welcomed Australia's support. "Development in Malaita is a national priority for the Solomon Islands Government. Smallholder cocoa producers will benefit greatly from this project. They will gain improved skills and knowledge about how to rehabilitate neglected cocoa blocks and more effectively manage their plantings to dramatically improve the quality and quantity of production," said Mr Fono.

It has been agreed that Australia will provide around SBD19.5 million (A$3.5 million) over three years to support the cocoa industry in Malaita. It will also reprioritise approximately SBD5.5 million (A$1 million) from its bilateral aid program toward increased road rehabilitation and maintenance in Malaita under CSP. This is in addition to the SBD40.5 million (A$7.3 million) Australia is spending on roads in Malaita in the two years to June 2010. The CSP Roads Program has to date rehabilitated and maintained approximately 200km of roads in Malaita, providing employment for local skilled workers and community groups.

Work on the cocoa project will commence in June with the training of extension officers to work with leading cocoa farmers to rehabilitate existing cocoa blocks, purchase high quality cocoa dryers, re-establish seed gardens and nurseries, facilitate organic cocoa exports and improve the efficiency of the marketing system. The project aims to increase rural incomes for around 6,000 farming families through increased cocoa production and improved cocoa quality.

Mr Fono said he was also very pleased with the support Australia was providing to road rehabilitation and maintenance in Malaita. "The increased funding to CSP for roads will not only help agricultural producers through rehabilitation of 25km along the North Road between Malu'u and Auki, but will also generate part time employment for up to 1000 people through maintenance contracts with communities across Malaita," said Mr Fono. "This is especially important as Solomon Islands faces the global economic crisis."

Premier of Malaita Province, Richard Irosaea Na'amo, joined Mr Fono in welcoming Australia's assistance to Malaita. "Cocoa is a very important crop in Malaita. It generates substantial employment and incomes for families across Malaita. The Malaita Provincial Government puts its full support behind these projects."

Australia will provide over A$45 million (approximately SBD254 million) in bilateral development assistance to Solomon Islands in Australian financial year 2009-10. Mr Kerr's visit is aimed at further strengthening cooperation between Australia and Solomon Islands, with a strong focus on Australia's aid program and its role in raising the living standards of all Solomon Islanders. While in Honiara Mr Kerr is also attending the Forum Ministerial Standing Committee meeting on RAMSI.