Stories

How Vasiti led Fiji through three tropical cyclones, flash floods, storm surges and COVID-19

Friday, 31 July 2020

WLI alumni Adi Vasiti Radinivuna Soko says effective communication, coordination and compassion helped her lead Fiji through three Tropical Cyclones (TC), flash flooding, and storm surges – all on top of the challenges caused by COVID-19.

The first female Director of Fiji’s National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) believes there are leadership strengths unique to women leaders navigating through crises, which benefits society’s most vulnerable.

And in a virtual panel on humanitarian leadership in the age of COVID-19, Vasiti shared her advice to community organisation leaders keen to support emergency responses.

Listening to and supporting ‘society’s most vulnerable’

When Vasiti reflected on whether women leaders contribute to emergency planning and response differently, she feels that the natural empathy and care that women have contributes to ensuring the vulnerable members of society are considered at all levels of an emergency operation. 

"I am a mother to four children, that role of compassion and love and the fact that I am always alert brings out the best in me. It allows me to look at scenarios holistically, and think outside the box to ensure effective emergency response occurs at all phases of the operation. I practise the principle of OODA LOOP ie (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act). Critical thinking is a part of me which guarantees that the needs of vulnerable communities are considered at all times, this includes those living with disability, the elderly ... I have became so accustomed to ensur[ing] those vulnerable are … not left out," says Vasiti.

Putting consultation in practice, Vasiti says her team was “always in constant discussion with other Government ministries such as the Ministry of Women” and other representative groups to ensure the relief items deployed, and methods to provide them, were appropriate. 

“Bringing in that understanding as part of the planning [of an emergency response] makes a lot of difference to those who receive that much-needed assistance,” she explains.

Vasiti also promotes inclusion and equality in her personal life. She is an advocate for education in rural communities, and the co-founder of the Mobile Me Project – a mobile application that helps people living with disability find accessible locations across Fiji.

She also spends time donating sanitary products to women in need.

Communication becomes ‘an asset’ to coordinate effectively

Because Fiji’s TC Harold emergency response had to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions, effective communication and coordination was needed more than ever.

“When we were planning [in Suva] from within the lockdown area, we were not able to execute our plan, so communication became an asset, where we had to communicate to those outside the lockdown zone to execute a plan that they have not seen, nor have they commented on,” she explains.

The NDMO unloading aid packs from hanger during TC Harold

In the response phase of TC Harold, Vasiti explains it was incredibly helpful to her when organisations consolidated and shared information on the types of support they had available, or could make available when needed.

“It’s important to submit organisation state of readiness for a disaster to the national Government so we can mainstream assistance and support in an effective manner,” she says. “Disaster and humanitarian approach is not only for Government, it’s … for everyone”.

Rising to the top of a male-dominated field

When learning more about Vasiti’s leadership journey, career path and personal interests, it soon becomes clear why she has risen to and taken on such an incredibly challenging role. 

With a Master’s of Geospatial Science and over ten years’ industry experience, Vasiti has managed weather systems, re-developed the way Fiji surveys the earth’s surface, and excelled despite the challenges of operating in a heavily male-dominated field.

More so, she is part of a growing trend of women in leadership positions in Fiji, particularly in STEM-related industries – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – in which women hold just a fraction of positions.

Supporting, celebrating and encouraging more women in science

In a bid to support, collaborate, and encourage future generations of women in science, Vasiti launched the first Pacific Women in Geospatial Science Magazine.

The magazine supports, builds networks among, and shares the untold stories of, women leading and breaking ground in geospatial science in the Pacific.   

Vasiti says that her religion, husband and children are the backbone to her success.

“I would not be where I am today without them,” she remarks.

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During her time on WLI’s Leadership & Mentoring program, Vasiti worked with her mentor, Dr Suelynn Choy, an Associate Professor of RMIT University’s School of Geospatial Science, and an expert in satellite navigation and positioning.