From Canberra to Seisia: young leader gives voice and opportunity to community

30th June 2022

Talei Elu is a proud Saibai Koedal woman from Seisia – a small Torres Strait Islander community in remote Cape York. Talei worked in Canberra for six years in roles at Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the National Indigenous Australians Agency and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. She now works part time for 33 Creative, an Aboriginal-owned media and events company. In 2021, Talei returned home to her community to focus more of her time on community-based initiatives and her love of capturing her culture and people.

Can you please tell us about the project you had been working on? How did you secure funding to improve telecommunications in Seisia and what does this mean for your community?

I’ve been working on a range of community projects to help my community become more resilient against regional issues and more empowered to make changes on those issues.

Currently we have poor telecoms in our community which means we often can’t make calls, including emergency calls. This issue affects most of the Northern Peninsula Area region of Cape York where there are 3 Aboriginal communities and 2 Torres Strait Islander communities. For the last year, our communities members have come together, brought their skills to the table and met with local, regional, government stakeholders and Telstra to secure a grant that would enable us to build a cell tower that could provide 4G coverage for two communities, both Seisia and New Mapoon. Having this tower means our community can access distance education, open banking apps with ease, make emergency calls, access telehealth services, grow businesses, and overall we will become more digitally savvy.

Other projects have been focussed on ensuring women have more disposable income in their pockets. Khadija Gbla, a human rights activist and all round superwoman worked with Share the Dignity Australia to send up crate loads of care packages for our community women when Covid entered our region for the first time. This a particularly tough time – many women and people needed to isolate and couldn’t work, and the amount of disposable income households had, dropped significantly. In remote communities our cost of living is generally higher, and the cost of sanitary items, and hygiene products are extremely high. These care bags were filled with months’ worth of feminine hygiene products, perfumes, gifts and beauty products. Some bags were specifically for mums and bubs and included packs of diapers, baby products, toys and self-care items for mums. These bags helped so many of our women to get through a financially difficult time.

During this time I worked with the period proof underwear brand Modibodi to get women of Seisia 5 free pairs of underwear to take them through an entire cycle, and to overall reduce their expenditure on high priced feminine hygiene products from remote stores in our region. A little bit of extra cash over months can make a huge difference to households and now over 30 of our women in Seisia will have just a little extra disposable income to save – plus it’s a great product that reduces our impact on the environment!

You spoke about helping Seisia capitalise on the current infrastructure, can you tell us about what businesses are operating in the community?

We have a range of businesses operating in our community. Seisia Enterprise is a community owned business – they own and operate the local Supermarket, Service Station, Campground, and butcher. Other businesses of this calibre are mostly non-Indigenous owned. Local charter boat operators, mechanics, and other trades services are all non-Indigenous owned. They have of course had the generational wealth and assets to purchase business assets and equipment to start their businesses.

Building generational wealth and business opportunity is what I’d like to focus on and make sure Seisia is able to capitalise off when we have the tower built. Right now while the Telstra tower grant paperwork, planning and scoping is happening, we are slowly getting our Seisia residents the tools they would need to start small businesses and start earning extra income. We’ve bought a couple of Square Readers for budding entrepreneurs and a Square Terminal for free hire so they can start operating and earning money. Khadija has organised for Lenovo to donate 3 brand new laptops for our entrepreneurs as well, this will help them access business workshops online and access software to help grow their business. We have artists and craftsmen, a budding freelance journalist, a beauty therapist and a host of others who have business ideas they would like to pursue.

With telecommunications infrastructure plans now in place, what’s next for the community of Seisia?

The next thing is securing better power infrastructure from Ergon Energy or looking at solar solutions. Our issue with the telecoms was two-fold: one was that it hardly worked in our community, the other is that it would often cut out – for days, or weeks at a time. That would never be allowed to happen in an urban area. This is similar to what we are experiencing with power: it is unreliable and cuts out often, especially in wet season. Unfortunately for us, poor telecoms and poor power infrastructure means we are often without the two basic things we need to keep a business running. The next big task is to find out why our power keeps cutting out frequently, what state it is in, and why it isn’t being upgraded to support our Indigenous community run properly.

These are issues that many businesses in urban areas don’t need to think twice about, but for us here in Seisia, it is a constant issue. Bigger businesses that provide food often will have to throw out fresh meat, milk and refrigerated goods when the power goes out. This impacts the entire community, including business owners. Reliable power is an essential enabling component to any business, and not having reliable power is a major hindrance for our community business owners, especially in their growth stage.

What advice can you give for other First Nations mob that are looking to build up their communities or even looking to do business on country?

I feel like that is entirely up to each person, their skillset, and their mindset.

In terms of business on Country, after running my own small photography and media business in community for the last year, I would say: find as many opportunities as possible you can to include young community members into your work, your office, and your business discussions. It is important to foster those positive experiences and knowledge with business in our young people.