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Leading Pacific health CEOs recognised in New Year honours

Alualumoana Luaitalo

The vital contribution of two Pacific healthcare providers during Covid has led to their leaders being acknowledged in the NY honours.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Two community leaders have been honoured for their services in Pacific Health in the recent New Year honours.

Tevita Funaki and Lemalu Silao Vaisola-Sefo have both expressed how humbled they are to be awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit as well as acknowledging the support of their family and wider community have made to their careers.

Tevita Funaki, chief executive of The Fono Trust

Funaki has transformed The Fono from a primary health practice in Henderson with 30 staff and some limited public health contracts to the largest Pacific community-owned organisation.

The service now has more than 150 staff, offering primary, oral and public health, social services training and employment services.

Funaki, who has been CEO since 2010, says that the transformation at The Fono from a formal to a private primary health practice was a team effort.

“We wanted to grow the organisations, but not for the sake of just growing, but being able to provide services that are meaningful for Pacific.”

Funaki says that in building their relationship with the community, most of the good ideas came from the community and their frontline staff.

One of the challenges he faced was seeing how appalling Pacific health is.

“To be honest, coming into The Fono was the first time that I've worked for Pacific people.

“How Pacific organizations have been supported and funded through the governments, the treatment and some of the hard reality of the living standard of the Pacific.”

This was something that overwhelmed him, but he says at the same time, this is where he can put all his effort into hopefully making a difference, and The Fono was a great vehicle.

“The intentions and focus are for the Pacific, and we get to test some of the Pacific ways of doing things.”

Funaki’s thoughts and hopes are that government will support the achievement of positive health outcomes and says the Pacific community needs to speak out more.

“As a community, we need to be a lot more vocal and more mobilised in our interest more collectively as a group.

“This government are focusing on needs, and yes, they talk about not being ethnic-based but actually need-based.”

A leader of integrity

Funaki credits his parents and his siblings for instilling the Tongan values in him.

He says that he always wants to be values-based, of high integrity, respectful, and caring.

“You've got to be courageous at times and being courageous also helps you to be able to adapt.”

He also says that building a good team that has the same visions, the same values, and the same shared philosophies has been really helpful.

His message to Pacific communities is to have confidence in the skills and talents that they already have and use them.

“Especially the young people, lean forward to the platform when those leadership opportunities come up.

“They don’t come up too often, but when they present themselves, take it in and stay close to the voices of your parents.

“Those are the voices that will guide you when things get tough.”


Funaki holds a range of Pacific Advisory roles with Auckland Council, New Zealand Police, and Northern Region District Health Boards and also received the SunPix Awards, Pacific Health and Wellbeing Award, 2016.

Lemalu Silao Vaisola Sefo, Chief executive of South Seas Healthcare

Lemalu says that in some ways, he’s been working in healthcare since he was seven.

That’s when he left school to look after his mum who had diabetes and other health issues.

“I like to think that I've been in the health and wellbeing for a very long time, just through serving my own and looking after my mum and dad.”

He says that moving into South Seas has been a highlight of his career so far.

Lemalu, who also played rugby for Manu Samoa, was able to help establish an 0800 helpline with operators fluent in Pacific languages to remove communication barriers for families needing support and advice.

Lemalu gathered wide support from the community and Government to enable the expansion of support for the Pacific community during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the South Auckland Pacific community.

He says the most crucial things to address in the future are long-term health conditions, including diabetes and gout.

“In the new year we are going to continue doing the good work that we’re already doing.”

Lemalu says this will also help families and that's where he wants to make an impact.

He says it requires people to collaborate and that includes funders.

All about the community

Lemalu says it’s uncomfortable to be singled out to receive an award like this.

“There's a lot people, there’s a lot of organisations, including our community, they play a big part.

“So it's always awkward for me to receive such an award even though I’m really privileged and humbled, the community at the end of the day, they will judge whether you emit an impact in their lives.

“I guess the message for our communities is that 2024 is going to be another big year.”

Lemalu says while there is a new government, they still need to get on and provide the services that families and communities need.


Lemalu established the first Pacific Community Based Assessment Centre (CBAC) at Otara shopping centre, which included a permanent doctor to assist those without access to a GP.

The Otara CBAC has since grown to include a COVID-19 testing station, food bank, and later a vaccination centre.

Hero image: Tevita Funaki, left and Lemalu Silao Sefo are both New Year Honours recipients for their services in Pacific Health. Photo / Supplied

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