The humble nut funding Vanuatu school fees


When Tropical Cyclone Pam decimated Vanuatu two years ago it almost destroyed Votausi Mackenzie-Reur’s business, but with the help of Australian researchers she’s been able to re-group and employ even more locals so they can send their children to school.

The managing director had spent the previous five years getting her Lapita local foods company off the ground, only for it to almost come undone by a natural disaster.

“I thought that was the end,” she told AAP.

While her sons came to the rescue by finding generators to keep the freezers running, scientists at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research worked with her to reduce the impact of any future cyclones.

They had already been helping Ms Mackenzie-Reur sophisticate and grow her business, which revolves around the native canarium nut.

ACIAR’s forestry research program manager Tony Bartlett told AAP it had always been eaten raw, but never used to create a commercially viable business.

Mr Bartlett describes Ms Mackenzie-Reur as a “shining” example of someone who is prepared to have a go and add value to a locally grown product.

Ms Mackenzie-Reur used the nuts to create cookies, flour and pastes.

She also worked with the scientists to learn how to dry and process it so it met food safety standards.

The nuts are now available in shops and hotels across Vanuatu, but there are plans to increase certification so the products can be sold on cruise ships and internationally.

Ms Mackenzie-Reur, who employs 15 full time staff and uses nuts from more than 5000 farmers, says it gives families an income so they can send their children to school.

But the nut trade is not the only industry helping to improve the livelihoods of people in the developing nation.

Australian researchers have also been involved in the commercialisation of the sought-after sandalwood tree, harvested for its oil.

Vanuatu Department of Forestry’s Joseph Tungon says the uptake from locals over the past 10 years has been so great seedlings are now in short supply.

Mr Bartlett says the species found on the Pacific islands are of high value, but further work has been done to ensure only the highest quality ones are planted.

“We’re hoping we can create a niche for Vanuatu and Fiji sandalwood,” he said.

* AAP travelled to Vanuatu with the support of the Crawford Fund.