A hundred years ago, before planes, before penicillin, before TV and before anybody could entertain the concept of something called ‘internet’, these islands were a frontier suited only to those who were born here and those few foreigners with the courage and will to make the unexplored and wild islands of the Pacific their home.
In the 1800s, Vanuatu had few visitors but plenty of colourful and insalubrious characters. Ruthless sandalwood traders, blackbirders and whalers infested the islands, decimating populations with their guns and imported diseases while missionaries set up to dress and convert the islanders.
For the islanders, these intruders must have been like aliens. With their porcelain white skin and sophisticated tools, these people brought the ‘kago’. They had powerful ‘magic’ that could cure and most importantly, they had guns and offered protection against warrior tribes. In Vanuatu, there is still the saying, “those who come here are either mercenaries, missionaries, or misfits”.
While the mercenaries were busy ransacking the islands and the odd missionary was being eaten by resentful islanders, a third type of foreigner went about their business; the plantation owners.
In the late 1800s large plantations started to emerge in Vanuatu, owned by a few families, mostly of English and French origins who, after trying their luck elsewhere, found their way to ‘the last frontier’. Looking for a better life perhaps, these men and their families came to settle, to work hard on the land and to build what they envisioned could be a promising life in a not-promised land. Life was tough and many settlers lived in little more than makeshift huts. Life was cheap and death came often, either by disease or at the hands of each other. Plantation owners were killed by malaria, angry islanders and other foreigners in whisky-fuelled arguments. Conditions for the workers of these plantations were harsh: plantations owners ruled their land in the only ruthless way they knew and brutal punishment of workers was commonplace. Amidst all this, there would be good people doing good deeds and bad people doing bad things, but it must have been, all together, quite a harsh time in local history.
Generations later, it is the year 2014 and we are sitting in one of the classy restaurants that dot our islands shores, checking the latest facebook updates on our devices as we enjoy a delicious ice cream in the hot tropical weather. SWITI ice cream, Vanuatu’s own, is made by Nicole Russe-Dufus, great granddaughter of Lucien Colardeau and granddaughter of Henry Russet, two of the first French families to settle here in the early 1900s.
Hence this story properly begins in 1892 when Lucien Colardeau first arrived in New Caledonia. He went back and forth between Nouméa and Port-Vila before buying a property in Efate in 1903. Henri Russet arrived a little later, in 1906 settling first in Santo and later on acquiring the family’s property in Tagabé, Efate.
“There were not many French people in the islands at the time, so two of the children of the Russet family married two of the children of the Colardeau family,” explains Camelia Taylor Dufus, Nicole’s daughter.
Thérèse Colardeau, the granddaughter of Lucien Colardeau married Henri ‘Tanna’ Russet, son of Henry Russet in 1943. They had five children; one of them was Nicole Russe-Dufus who together with her husband Jean Dufus, started SWITI ice cream.
Originally from a small village in the Burgundy region of France, Jean Dufus arrived in the New Hebrides in 1965 to operate a kauri wood business on the island of Erromango. As many men of his and previous generations, Jean Dufus had been to war and once back in Port Vila, he used to frequent the ‘Bar des Anciens Combattants’ (the Bar of the Old Soldiers), where men went to drink and tell tales of their exploits. It is there that he met Henry ‘Tanna’ Russet, Nicole’s father. One day, in 1966, he was invited by Tanna Russet for dinner at the family home. Young Nicole had just returned from studying in France. Sitting around the dinner table, Jean and Nicole fell in love and less than a year later were married in Port Vila.
After their marriage, the couple left for Africa, returning to settle in New Caledonia in 1969 until 1973 when they decided to try their luck in Vanuatu with ‘La Ferme de Tagabé’. The farm was born in 1975 making cheese using the milk from the untamed cows Nicole’s father owned at Tagabé. These were not milking cows and only knew the life of a cow used for its meat, hence the milking process was not easy.
A few years later, they introduced the famous and tasty yoghurt that Vanuatu knows and loves. After Vanuatu regained its independence in 1980, they decided that the time had come to expand the business into a third product: ice cream. “We went to the bank and asked for a loan. It was not easy, although my parents had a plantation, we had nothing, not even a house to our name,” explains Nicole Russe-Dufus. “We had to fight for it, but in the end, we managed to get a loan.” And that is how, in 1981, SWITI ice cream was born. More products needed more milk and another local family business, Melektree, supplied the fresh milk needed for this expansion. As demand grew, not even this was sufficient and the business resorted to imported milk powder from New Zealand for their products.
During the following years, the family business expanded, diversifying into other products such as pasta and launching SWITI in New Caledonia in 1992. The family grew as well and the children – Sonia, Sylvie, Nicolas and Camelia – had by now grow into adults and started to join the family business. Sylvie, an accountant by trade, joined the business when she was 21 years old. “Time goes so fast, it has been twenty-two years now at SWITI,” says Sylvie. Currently SWITI’s general manager, this strong and determined woman bubbles with passion for the family business. As I sit in the office talking to her and her younger sister, Camelia, who is SWITI’s marketing manager and currently seven months pregnant, a string of people pops in to say hello. Camelia’s husband, carrying their young daughter, quietly comes in to delivery a message. Nicolas, their brother who is in charge of production, offers a quick hello and relays a hurried message in undecipherable French to Sylvie. An auntie comes in and apparently parks the car in the wrong place. ‘No, not there’, Sylvie seems to say, although they are speaking in French and I can only guess by their gestures and the odd familiar word. As I watch these daily events unfold, I feel like a guest sitting at the dinner table of a family she has just met. Nicole, the matriarch of the family, pops into the office and sits down quietly to offer me some information. I ask her about the history of SWITI in New Caledonia. “It became very successful after a few years, the number-one ice cream, but it was too much work, too many headaches and too much time away from the family. After eight years of running the business in two countries, in 2000 we decided to sell SWITI New Caledonia and focus on our business here in Vanuatu,” explains Nicole.
Currently, SWITI ice cream and La Ferme de Tagabé yogurt employs 25 staff and the family members. They have just created a new logo and are looking to export to Fiji and PNG. Over 34,000 litres of ice cream and sorbet and almost 2000 litres of yoghurt are enjoyed by adults and children alike across the islands every month. The yogurt comes in the small pots we all know and love and also in bigger packages for restaurants and resorts. The list of flavors for SWITI ice cream is extensive with flavors as enticing as ‘Dame Blanche Vahine’,‘Black Forest’, ‘Raspberry Black Rocky River’, ‘Cappuccino’ and ‘Nougatine’. The sorbets use local fruits, from mango to coconut and passion fruit and even seasonally, Soursop. “We have a lot more flavors than people realize,” Sylvie offers. “The difficulty for us is to make them all available, as often we find that retail shops do not have the space needed to display all the flavours”, she explains. The challenges for SWITI are common to most industries in Vanuatu. Businesses here have higher expenses than many other countries in the Pacific and having to compete with imported products is killing Vanuatu industry even before it starts. “The Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) trade agreement between the Melanesian countries does not benefit Vanuatu industry,” says Sylvie. “As an example, when a cheaper ice cream from Fiji started to be imported into Vanuatu, it greatly damaged our sales. We cannot compete with the prices that Fiji offers, it is simply not possible, our overheads are much higher,” explains Sylvie. You can’t help but feel her frustration. Not just within the export market, but here, in the domestic market, flooded with cheaper imports from countries like China, Fiji and Australia it is difficult to compete. The MSG trade agreement was put in place to facilitate trade between Pacific countries and its purpose is to benefit Pacific trade overall. Competition is necessary and ultimately benefits the consumer. But, if Vanuatu is ever to have a flourishing industry, systems will need to be put in place to protect its industry. As the population grows and migrates away from rural areas, unemployment is a growing issue and tourism alone cannot be expected to fulfill the employment and economic needs of Vanuatu. For Vanuatu GDP to grow, industries need to flourish. “My family has been here for three generations and unlike with imported ice cream and other products, the money SWITI makes stays in Vanuatu,” she explains passionately. Those who live here and love Vanuatu can also support its economy by buying local, even if it costs a little bit more.
For Jean Dufus, it is all about patience and the slow building of the family business he started almost forty years ago. During this journey, Jean’s duties have ranged from cheese maker to ‘delivery guy’, to manager and all aspects in between. “All of us children from the Russet and Colardeau families used to go to the same school and the adults would take turns to collect us,” explains Camelia. “When it was our father’s turn, he would come with the Ice cream delivery truck and all of us would travel in the cold-room. Fortunately for us, the cold room freezer was turned off. Unfortunately, it was also empty!”
Camelia however, found other ways to benefit from the family’s ice-cream making business, though not always succeeding in her mission. “I was trying to lick the ice cream from the fridge once when my tongue got stuck,” she said. “My mother had to pull me out. I left a little bit of skin from my tongue on that fridge, but it was worth it.” she says. No doubt, her children will consider themselves the luckiest in the world, with a mum with her very own ice cream family business.
A century after their arrival, the ‘Banyan’ family as they are known because of their many roots, is still here, working hard to produce Vanuatu’s own yogurt and ice cream. For Jean and Nicole, the business has been a labour of love and hard work spanning almost half a century and it continues to this day. When I asked Jean what is the secret of keeping a marriage together after 50 years of building a business and a family together, he simply stated “l’amour.”
Story by Patricia Gil. Photography by Graham Crumb.