Elders’ stories: Pioneering power worker lauds renewables

Atunaisa Cawaki

By Kite Pareti

The use of renewables in Fiji has eased the load for Atunaisa Cawaki.

The 69-year-old was a underground cable jointer for the-then Fiji Electricity Authority (now Energy Fiji Limited) between the 1970s and the 2000s.

From Pacific Harbour to Labasa, Cawaki and a group of apprentices he supervised laid some of the very first underground cables that still enable electricity supply in those communities.

“I really support the renewable energy initiative because of the changes of weather patterns – it’s sometimes unpredictable. Those wind turbines in Sigatoka were a first for Fiji yet it didn’t serve its full purpose. If it were to be established across Fiji, it would relieve tradesmen like me from the tiresome work,” he reflects.

Cawaki’s first apprenticeship started with Balfour-Kilpatrick International, an England-based construction company. “It was through this employment that I helped placed the underground (electricity) cables for the whole Pacific Harbour area,” he says.

As a young Fijian cable jointer in the 1970s, Cawaki says he lived day-to-day, earning 24 cents an hour as his first salary. “I remained happy and when I received a pay raise, I would invest it into training the young people in my village.”

In 1985, Cawaki left Deuba village and joined the FEA station in Suva. It was also the time that hydroelectricity was first introduced in the country.

“While I was still working for FEA, I was given the opportunity to learn electrical engineering at the Fiji Institute of Technology in Samabula [now Fiji National University],” he says.

“I did not study for a certificate. I was just there to learn and gain those skills. I couldn’t pursue a certificate because I did not pass my Fiji Junior examination,” he confesses.

“But that did not hinder me. I kept learning what I needed to know in theory and practice, and I was one of the first indigenous Fijians to achieve a license as an underground cable jointer in 1989,” he says.

Cawaki says the training at FIT taught him the importance of education. “There are some young people today who have yet to grasp how essential education is. I was so blessed at that time (to learn and use those skills) even though I did not pass well in subjects in my secondary school days.”

In 2000, Cawaki was promoted as senior supervisor at FEA which came with its share of dilemmas. “One time, a group of seven men whom I supervised had been mishandling the given equipment for the job. I chose to take the blame because they were unlicensed apprentices and they had families. So I got terminated because of that,” he reveals.

“So I returned home to Deuba village and thankfully a year later, I joined an American-based company that worked on powering the 37 wind turbines in Butoni, Sigatoka. I managed to connect 36 kilometres of underground cables in that area,” he says.

“I especially like wind turbines than engines. Monasavu Dam was designed as a 20-year plan by the former Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. So in places like Nadarivatu, the engines powering the electricity supply are almost at its limit.”

To address the issue, the Fiji government alongside development agencies have piloted numerous renewable energy projects and set targets to achieve 100% renewables by 2036.

“I’ve also worked with Vodafone to enable electricity supply in Labasa. I remember that day, many people were able to watch their favourite television programs,” he recalls.

“I find it easier to connect renewable energy sources than underground cables because it requires less wires. When I was in Levuka, there were five village homes that I helped plug into the solar energy system,” he adds.

Cawaki says he loves his job and that he will be an electrician until the day he dies.

“I’m approaching 70 years old in July, yet those in the energy sector are still needing my help,” he said while laughing. “Whether I get paid or not, I just do the work. I’m grateful for those who have supported me this far.”

“My desire is that there will be someone or some people who will carry forward this valuable trade when I’m gone. That’s why I demonstrate to young people that education is essential in order to have a decent life.

Cawaki also serves as the school manager of Deuba District School.

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