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Next-gen leaders

For Kakau Foliaki, it all started with the ocean surrounding his home country of Tonga.

“Every time I went to the outer islands I’d see how sea level rising is affecting their lives. When you talk to people they say ‘when we grew up we used to plant there, but now it’s all water. The sea is coming in’.”

“The future generation, all they think of is when is the natural disaster going to happen.”

That prompted Foliaki, a public servant, to move into solar power. He then took up an Australian government scholarship to study at the University of Melbourne’s Office for Environmental Programs (OEP). That meant moving his young family away from Tonga, the group of islands in the Pacific east of Fiji, in 2012.

During his two-year Master of Environment he studied energy efficiency and sustainable design of buildings for the first time; they were not on the radar in Tonga. The loss of his baby daughter shortly after her birth in Melbourne crystallised his career path.

“I think that’s the reason why I’m really passionate about creating a world that’s better. When you leave this world you’ll know you did a lot to help others who can’t help themselves,” he says, reflecting on that difficult time.

"..When you talk to people they say ‘when we grew up we used to plant there, but now it’s all water. The sea is coming in’.”

Foliaki wrote a thesis proposing a guide for sustainable design in Tonga’s built environment. Supervised by Dominique Hes from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, Foliaki emphasised regenerative design – “giving back to nature”. He’s hoping to publish and enact the thesis.

He also studied leadership and interdisciplinarity at the OEP – and made good friends. There are 430 students in the OEP’s graduate programs, more than a third from overseas, including students from Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines. Students choose from 200 subjects across nine faculties; the course develops the knowledge and skills of people wanting to work in the environment or sustainability.

Foliaki has now returned to Tonga, where he lives just outside the capital Nuku'alofa. He leads the energy efficiency section in the Department of Energy and is developing a national energy efficiency policy to cover transport, electricity and buildings. “There’s none at the moment,” he notes. “But it’s cheaper to actually save energy.” (Tonga relies on expensive imported diesel for electricity, although off-grid islands are going solar).

One topic Foliaki studied in Melbourne was how to convince people to change their behaviour. He took from the literature the suggestion of explaining why he believes in the change, rather than telling people what to do. Foliaki has put this into practice.

It’s not always easy. “The Tongans have this fear of losing their homes, their culture. Their future’s at stake due to climate change,” he says.

“But you know for sure that we’ll do a lot of good, and we can change the world, and then we’ll be remembered as the generation who made the impossible possible.” FOLIAKI

Head of Energy Efficiency, Department of Energy, Tonga