|The Taste of Tonga coconut factory|
They quickly realised that coconuts are the most abundant natural foodstuff on the island; it's estimated that 15 million fall from the trees each year but only about 1 million are gathered (mostly to feed pigs). So they set up a little manufacturing operation to cold-press coconut oil, which is much valued in the health-food and natural cosmetics sector in Japan and Australasia.
As they began to work with the locals to get supplies of coconuts, they also stumbled upon several abandoned vanilla plantations. The world vanilla price crashed a few years ago and Tonga, once a reasonably-sized producer, gave up on the labour-intensive crop; the price has now improved but the skills to grow and harvest the crop had all but been lost. Ian contacted an Australian business called Queen Vanilla and persuaded them to invest in Vava'u as part of their corporate social responsibility programme.
With Queen's backing, some EU and New Zealand aid and, most importantly, Ian and Vanessa's huge enthusiasm and drive, the results have been amazing. 300 growers have joined the Vava'u Vanilla Growers' Association, supplying Taste of Tonga who take the ripe beans and take them through the 3-month drying and conditioning process before shipping them to Queen. Last year was the first crop, just 2 tonnes of dried beans, but the quality was amongst the best Queen had ever seen; this year they hope to ship 8 tonnes. Ian is determined to share the benefits of this success with his growers so is running training courses, producing instruction manuals in Tongan and is setting up a 'tool library' so that the growers can borrow chainsaws, wheel-barrows and spades to improve their plantations. This year they'll be certified Organic so this will increase the value of their beans.
|White men can't husk coconuts!|
|Ian with his vanilla beans|
|The beans drying in the sun|
If ever a business deserves to succeed it's this one. We'd love to be able to come back in a couple of years to see how it has progressed. You can read more about it here