The island of Tanna is famous for its Volcano, Mount Yasur, one of the most accessible live volcanoes in the world. Known as Yahul, in kastom, the volcano is ‘the spirit mother ’ and it is true, in practical life, the volcano nurtures life in Tanna.
It is because of the volcano that Tanna has a small but flourishing tourism industry. And it is also because of the volcano, and the rich soils it provides, that Tanna is an important agricultural center for the country. The coconut has been crucial to Vanuatu for a very long time, but in the last three decades, due to the constantly declining prices of copra, coconut plantations are a shadow of their former selves.
In recent years, coffee has become a new and important source of revenue for the island, its success fueled by Tanna Coffee, and the hard work and determination of its owners to bring the coffee industry to life.
Three years ago, another business was born, Tanna Farms, which is determined to revitalise the coconut industry in Tanna.
Jono Bushell first came to Tanna to recruit workers for his company Vinepower, as part of the RSE (Recognised Seasonal Employer) workers program. Back in New Zealand, Jono and business partner Jason Kennard own Vinepower, a viticultural contracting company based in New Zealand’s south island. In his quest to recruit workers for Vinepower, Jono travelled the Pacific extensively. But, as is the case with many of us, it was Vanuatu that stole his heart, and he made a special connection with the island of Tanna.
It was there that Jono meet many of Vinepower’s RSE workers, one of them Seth Kaurua. Seth has been, amongst other things, project coordinator for World Vision for eleven years. Well-travelled, educated, and without a job, in 2008, the two men met during Jono’s annual visit to Tanna. Seth became team leader of the Vanuatu group and spent four months in New Zealand during that year’s harvest.
Through the following years, Jono and Seth kept working together, Seth helping with the recruiting process in Tanna, while Jono travelled back and forth.
Jono felt a special bond with Tanna and two things struck and worried him. On the one hand, once the RSE workers returned home to Tanna, they had very limited possibilities to find further work in the island. On the other, there was an abundance of coconut palms and plantations, being left to rot and die with the subsequent loss of potential.
You have to admire farmers, they are so hands-on practical. Jono thought that there must be a way to fix this situation and use up the coconuts so they can provide further work and income to the island.
It was during a conference in Wellington, back in 2011 that Jono meet Bob Pollard, Director of Kokonut Pacific, manufacturers of coconut oil based in the Solomon Islands. Three weeks later, a Vinepower work trip took Jono to the Solomons and he decided to pop into the mill and learn about the possibilities of coconut oil.
The trip convinced Jono that there was no reason why this could not be done in Tanna. Jono put the idea forward to his business partner, Jason Kennard, founder of Vinepower New Zealand. How about opening a coconut mill in Tanna? Employing over 250 people in New Zealand, Vinepower is by no means a small operation and keeps both Jason and Jono very busy. “I love Vanuatu”, explained Jason. “I wanted to deepen our links with a country and people I like, so I thought, why not?” For the next two years, Jono and Jason, with the help of Seth, researched the way forward. Jono’s trips to Tanna became more frequent, and with a deeper understanding of the untapped agricultural potential of the island, they decided to plant coffee while learning more about coconuts. Finally, after much research and thought, and many conversations with local landowners, in 2014, building of the coconut mill commenced.
Tanna Farms is quite unique, as this is a partnership between three families, Jono’s, Jason’s and Seth’s, where each family owns a third of the business. Jono and Jason provided the cash and farming expertise while Seth provided the land, local knowledge, and expertise navigating the legal, administrative, and custom complexities of custom land ownership in the island. “This type of joint venture between locals and foreigners should be encouraged,” explains Seth. “In Vanuatu, many people have land, but without the capital, they are unable to start a business. Opportunities like this, where locals can profit from their land without having to sell it, benefit everyone. This has created employment not only for my family and extended relatives, but, for many others in Tanna who can now sell their produce and make enough income to pay for things such as their children’s school fees,” says Seth.
The mill was finished late in 2014 and in early 2015 it started to produce oil.
The coconut mill has two presses, drying tables and grating and sorting equipment. Coconuts are bought from different families who collect and sell their coconuts to the mill. At the mill, coconuts are first dehusked, then grated and put to dry on the custom-built drying tables. The drying tables are powered by burning the coconut husks, hence nothing is wasted, and energy and resource-utilization is minimized. Once the coconut flesh is dried, it is placed into the coconut press, where the oil is extracted. It is then left to settle for a couple of weeks, the sediment drops to the bottom and the coconut oil is racked off, throughout all these steps, is made by hand, hence employing many hands and providing income for many. No chemicals are used in the production process, making it a 100% organic, natural, high-grade cold-pressed oil, which can be used for cooking, drinking, dressing salads or as a skin and beauty product.
The original plan was to make coconut oil to be exported in bulk. But after all the sums were done, it was clear that there was no future in bulk export. It was then that they decided to take the enterprise a step further and manufacture the end product themselves, in the form of pure coconut oil, and later, soaps and lip balm.
The team got hands to work, sourcing packaging, and designing logos, promotional material, and everything else that goes with turning a commodity into an end product. “We are farmers, we know about agriculture but we had no idea of the rest of the process involved in manufacturing an end product,” explains Jono. “It was a huge learning curve for us, we had to choose and source packaging, create and build our brand, and lastly build our distribution chain in Vanuatu and overseas.” The team was not alone however, and people like Nicky Barnes from Pandanus Consulting and Kristy Norton, from Norton Consulting, helped translate the spirit of Tanna Farms into the brand image of its product.
In the first week of March 2015, with great pride and happiness, after a long process that first started back in 2008 with an idea, Tanna Farms sealed their first oil bottles and launched their coconut baby into the world.
Seven days later, Cyclone Pam struck, flattening the coconut mill down to the concrete slab. “We found parts of shed 70 meters away,” laughs Jono. Fortunately, Seth had managed to store away every part of equipment and machinery that could be moved to a safer building. Fortunately as well, they had managed to produce 3000 liters of oil before the cyclone struck, which was kept at their storage and packaging facilities in Port Vila.
But the shed was gone, and so were the coconuts in Tanna Island.
At that point, they had to decide whether to stop here or rebuild and continue. Like most people in Vanuatu, they chose the latter. “We felt that if we left, not only would we have wasted many years of our time and money, but also, we would be abandoning the people of Tanna island, which was our first motivation to start the mill,” explains Jono.
There is something really down-to-earth about Kiwi farmers; the solid way they see the world and an acceptance of problems being part of ultimate solutions and daily life. Perhaps because those who work with nature know that bad crops and bad years are as much part of nature’s cycle as good crops and plentiful years. Before the cyclone, Tanna Farms had started growing peanuts. Knowing that peanuts are a fast cycle crop, only three months from planting to production, Tanna Farms formulated their plan. They would use the oil they had stored until the coconut palms fruited again, would rebuild the mill, and concentrate on planting peanuts as a short-tem strategy to supplement Tanna Farms and local people’s incomes. “We cooked the peanuts in our coconut oil, and I sold them to the hotels and bars around Port Vila,” explains Jono. Peanuts were aplenty in Tanna, at a time when every other crop, such as coffee and coconuts, was wiped out and needed one or two years to fruit and recover. “The peanuts were pretty much all there was left. I was thinking about what else could we do with peanuts. I was in Vila at the time, back from seeing the complete devastation in Tanna, standing in front of the kitchen bench, looking at a jar of peanut butter I had just bought. I looked at the label and could not believe how many artificial ingredients were there. I thought, surely, how hard can it be to make peanut butter without any artificial ingredients? So we borrowed a blender, and started experimenting, making peanut butter with nothing else but our peanuts.”
Coconut palms were fruiting once again in November 2015. The new, stronger and bigger coconut mill was completed in December 2015, now built to withstand Category Five cyclones. This March, 2016, they received their first big order for export to the New Zealand market.
The mill, managed by Seth Kaurua and his wife, Germaine, now employs ten people directly and provides income for peanut and coconut growers who sell their produce to Tanna Farms. In Port Vila, the packaging factory is managed by Seth’s son and daughter in law, providing further employment.
After a long and arduous process, and having to start again from the beginning, Tanna Farms, a small family business, that joined families across an ocean, is ready to help revive and bring the coconut back to its full glory.
To know more about this great venture and its products, visit www.tannafarms.com.vu.
Story by Patricia Gil.