Mixing optimism with realism for Kiribati

As New Zealand’s Head of Mission for Kiribati, Michael Upton is well aware of the impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels. Regardless, he believes there are opportunities, and is adamant that all sectors, including business, can make a positive contribution to the future of Kiribati.



“They know they need to because climate change exacerbates existing development challenges,” says Michael, who managed the Pacific Economic Development Programme when he joined MFAT just over a decade ago.


“While it can be a challenging business environment, there are opportunities for companies with strong technical skills or construction expertise. Over the past few years a range of New Zealand companies have helped deliver large infrastructure projects (including McConnell Dowell and the Downer Group).”


With 811 km2 of low lying land, Kiribati’s 33 islands are spread over all four hemispheres in an expanse of ocean equivalent in size to the continental United States. Only 21 islands are inhabited, with around half of the 115,000 population living in the main urban centre of South Tarawa.


Michael notes that as one of the world’s most remote and economically vulnerable countries, Kiribati’s wealth stems predominately from fisheries, remittances are also an importance source of income.


Kiribati's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 3.5m km2 is one the largest in the region. Sub-regional cooperation on fishing licence fees has delivered a step change in revenue. This is further enhanced by increasing exports of tuna into Asia, United States and the European Union.


Labour mobility has long been important to Kiribati. Over fifty years ago the Marine Training Centre started preparing seafarers to work on foreign ships. More recently, its citizens have benefited from opportunities in New Zealand and Australia.


The RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) Scheme currently provides employment for more than 220 workers a year, and in close collaboration with MBIE (the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) efforts are underway to increase numbers and diversify opportunities.


Michael took up the role of High Commissioner to Kiribati in January 2017, having previously been posted to Samoa. Before joining MFAT, he worked as a capacity building and organisational development technical advisor in the Solomon Islands.


The father of two daughters, married to Vena-Liz Upton, he has professional interests in community development and social research. He holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters of Social Administration.


He looks forward to the Heads of Mission breakfast at the Hilton on Auckland’s waterfront on May 25, sharing stories from the region with business people searching for opportunities.


“I go into the event with a sense of both optimism and realism,” he says.


The Pacific Head’s of Mission Breakfast (HOMs) is on 25 May 2018 in Auckland.


This annual event is facilitated by Pacific Cooperation Foundation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). It is designed for the private sector to have an opportunity to dialogue issues with MFAT Heads of Mission.


Date: Friday, 25 May 2018


Time: 7:15 am registration open, 7:30 am - 9.30 am breakfast event


Location: Aquamarine Room. Hilton Hotel, Princes Wharf, 147 Quay Street, Auckland Central


Tickets: $40 per person




About Pacific Cooperation Foundation

PCF is an independent partnership between public and private sectors in New Zealand and other Pacific Island countries which aims to strengthen partnerships in both the public and private sectors, sharing knowledge and expertise to promote prosperous businesses and communities in the Pacific.


For more information go to the PCF website.