Rise Beyond the Reef launches rural development in Fiji

The village of Navala in the Nausori Highlands of Fiji's biggest island, Viti Levu. (Photo from Wikipedia)

For Janet Lotawa, the first step to starting an international development NGO was falling in love.

I don’t really remember what I was thinking, but I remember exactly how I felt.

It was the summer of 1994, and it was a sensation of peaceful happiness, something I didn’t experience often in my teenage years. I was in Fiji, on vacation with my family, staying at a remote island resort.

Fiji is a country in the middle of the South Pacific made up of two main islands and hundreds of small islands. It’s considered the hub of the Pacific and yet is still very much a developing region.

I’ve always been a sun lover, so it was odd that I ended up spending most of my days hanging out inside the staff’s quarters. I felt at ease with the women who worked there. I told them stories and cracked jokes about where I came from. They dressed me up in a staff uniform, took pictures and shared about life on the islands.

The staff lived with very basic resources; drinking Milo cocoa tea together was a real afternoon treat. I came to understand all of the workers at the resort had to leave their families and communities to access work in tourism, and they lived-in, so they didn’t get to go home for months at a time.

I did get to go home, but I loved Fiji so much, I cried when I left that island.

The next summer I returned on a service-learning program with Global Works. I was dying to spend more time in this tropical paradise but I really wanted to experience what life was like in the villages where those women I’d met came from.

I spent a month there, just enough time to detox from my American teenagerness and meet my future husband, Semi Lotawa.

Semi is from the highland region in the interior of Viti Levu, aka “the big island.” He was working for the forestry service and volunteered to stay with our group, wanting to gain more experience working in ecotourism. I married my husband because of the content of his character, but his cultural upbringing and environment has much to do who he is. His ability to create community, his generosity of heart and his talent for genuinely connecting with a wide variety of people are all very Fijian traits.

That month changed my life. Living outside of my usual surroundings helped me to examine what I was really like on the inside.

Here I am, 18 years later, married to my love from Nalotawa Village. We have two kids and have never let the dream of someday moving back to Fiji slip away.

Janet and Semi Lotawa in Fiji, circa 1995. (Photo courtesy Janet Lotawa)
Janet and Semi Lotawa in Fiji, circa 1995. (Photo courtesy Janet Lotawa)

So today, July 13th, we finally set sail for Fiji. We’ll be gone for at least a year.

While my husband has co-founded a sustainable-based forest product company operating in the interior regions of Fiji, I’m starting on my own journey — Rise Beyond the Reef, a Seattle-based nonprofit devoted to creating a better world for rural women and children in the South Pacific.

Our pilot project is in Fiji, but our goal is to share this work eventually with rural communities in other Pacific island nations.

Behind that mission is years of hoping that we would be able to actually do the good work we felt rural communities in the South Pacific need and deserve. Since we got married, every year and a half we’d take a trip to Fiji with boxes of supplies to villages and send materials to schools.

But when I started to write the business plan to formalize that work and create Rise Beyond the Reef I felt choked. How do I express in a plan something I yearned to do for more than half of my life?

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned so far about making your passion a reality in the non-profit world:

1. Know your mission:

Our pilot project plan included a clear approach for strengthening educational infrastructure in rural communities and identified the need for a baseline assessment in partnership with a team of village representatives.

From there, we’d develop our approach for our other two focus areas, health and safety, and economic development for women and children.

I had a plan, but I was still struggling to write our mission statement.

After more than a decade of working as a fundraiser and development professional I’ve learned to trust my ability to articulate passion, priorities and need into compelling statements and stories in their own time. But something was not fully cooked yet.

Eventually I got the chance to meet with Peter Blomquist, a “seen it all” consultant, seasoned in international development funding and programming and ready to tell me how my project blended in with the rest.

“Good!” I thought, “that’s just the sort of audience I need.” I was ready to combat his assumptions with facts and figures with the hopes of gaining his support and endorsement for our work. He talked to me for ten minutes, asked some pointed questions, persisted with his skepticism. I told him I wanted to know how he’d approach the work. He laid out three concise points and connected them with one thread.

He had my mission statement: Rise Beyond the Reef bridges the divide between rural communities, government and the private sector in the South Pacific, sustainably creating a better world for women and children.

2. Get your paperwork right:

We originally were planning to register for 501(c)(3) status in the U.S., but we found out that many international funders (including U.S.-based funders) will not support your work if you are registered here.

Why? Because over the years, they’ve learned that international development works best when it’s built with sustainability at the forefront. So, empowering local communities to develop and lead their own change. Instead of Westerners coming in with Western ideas of how to “fix things.”

We are currently considering some fiscal sponsorship options during the first few years of our work, to help us plug into existing international development networks. By becoming a sponsored organization we have the benefit of an instant community we can reach out to for support. Also, we are not sure doing all the paperwork to get a 501(c)(3) going is the best use of our time when we are working to get programs off the ground.

 3. Authenticity is Key:

That’s a big mantra for me right now. There are no NGOs working in the rural regions we are targeting in Fiji. That’s why we are doing this. Whatever approach our work takes, it has to be based on the needs those communities have identified and articulated themselves.

A student in rural Fiji. (Photo courtesy Rise Beyond the Reef)
A student in rural Fiji. (Photo courtesy Rise Beyond the Reef)

If we are global citizens, then it’s important to value the perspectives and knowledge of people in developed and developing countries.

Rural communities in the South Pacific have incredible assets in their traditional knowledge, their art forms, their hunting and farming practices; their understanding of the rich biodiversity in the environment. There is value in these regions.

It’s important for the members of these rural communities to have the opportunity to measure their own value and facilitate their own sustainable growth (that’s the core value of community-based development) just as Americans have valued doing in this country for centuries.

Donors in the “developed” world have the opportunity to support the areas in the world where there are deficits because we have the resources and technologies to do so. Our aim as an organization is to help remove the layer between the rural communities and the outside world, to help amplify the voice of rural regions and to provide donors with the opportunity to respond to it.

My life has been deeply changed by the women I met in 1994, by the experiences I’ve had in Fiji over the years and the belief in myself I’ve developed that one day I can help bridge their world to a better future.

This is my mission.


  1. thanks to a life of service to others…… fiji needs people just like you. thats the only true gospel, that has often been preached about….. you are taking it to another level….” DOING WHAT YOU BELEIVE IN ” i lived in Seattle for 5 years, beautiful country , beautiful people …..

  2. Thank you for a very remarkable idea Nene Janet. Indeed very little NGO’s working with rural villages in Fiji, but you take the challenge and help the needy women and needy children of the Pacific. God Bless you Nene.

  3. Great work Janet keep it up i have read the report and how you are trying so hard to get your work off the ground. we hope and pray that all goes well for you and the project and remember there are friends around who are willing to lend in a helping hand if you need it for any assistance.

  4. Vinaka vakalevu Mrs. Lotawa, I was really impressed with the great work you are doing, coming with Rusieli that day to Abaca Village was an experience in meeting the village women whom I think has to be developed furthatemer . Am looking forward to work with you through the work of the Fiji Arts Council , we have similar goals for the rural women in their development especially in handicraft skills, using their traditional skills, local materials etc.

    Looking forward to meet you again in the upcoming Western Craft Fair at Koroivolu Park, Nadi from 12th – 15th November, 2014. Try and bring few women to experience our collections during the three days event. Stay blessed and thank you once again for the great achievements

  5. Vina Du Riki Vakalevu Mrs Lotawa for the great changes you’ve brought to our Vanua , Although there are tough mountains to climb in reaching out to them , It is my prayer and the prayer of our Nation (Fiji) that God Almighty will richly bless your vision and future under takings . God Bless.

  6. Having sailed around Fiji for 3 months I can relate to what you are saying about trying to create a better world for women and children in Fiji. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on washable pads as I’ve come to the conclusion they need to be produced here in Fiji.

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