Purpose- led and and proud
TAURANGA-BASED HEILALA VANILLA IS A PURPOSEDRIVEN EXPORTER IMPACTING POSITIVELY ON THE TONGAN COMMUNITY.
It all began as an aid project in 2002. Retired dairy farmer John Ross had sailed his homebuilt yacht to the Kingdom of Tonga where he planned to celebrate his birthday, have a family holiday and indulge his passion for spearfishing. Ross subsequently fell in love with the place and its people. And such was the strength of his love that a year later, when a cyclone ripped through Tonga’s Vava’u island group, he gathered a group of friends from the Papakura Rotary Club and returned to help with the clean-up.
A plot of land was gifted to Ross by a local family as thanks, on the proviso he use it to generate local employment.
After much research in countries with a similar climate to Tonga, the decision was made to plant vanilla.
Reflecting on Heilala Vanila’s journey there have been many milestones, says Jennifer Boggiss, John’s daughter and company CEO – such as “launching our first products; winning numerous local and export awards, being featured at a store in the Tokyo post office building, and at Eleven Madison Park – the number one restaurant in the world in 2017.”
It has also been satisfying to see members of both the Tongan and New Zealand teams step up to more strategic roles in the company.
2018 marks ten years since the Heilala Vanilla brand was established in New Zealand and the company has just completed a record 100 acres of vanilla planting in Tonga to future-proof growth.
Much of Heilala Vanilla’s export success can be attributed to its tripartite model across three segments – retail and direct-to-consumers, food service, and food manufacturing. Each segment reinforces the other; with high-end chefs influencing high-end baking connoisseurs and high consumer demand influencing food manufacturers’ choice of ingredients.
“We typically target a geographical area in export markets,” explains Boggiss. “For example, in the US, New York City has been the region of focus for the past 12 months.
“It takes patience and attention to tackle one area at a time – there is always the lure and excitement of new markets. But over time we’ve learnt to invest our time resource in specific areas to maximise impact.”
Boggiss admits that operating out of both Tonga and Tauranga creates logistical challenges. Remote farms coupled with unreliable Internet and phone connections means communication can be difficult. But she says they get around this by channelling communication through trustworthy and respected people within plantation communities.
Fair trade and sustainability are cornerstones of the business. “Right from inception we’ve partnered with communities and farmers as we strongly believe that ‘one-plus-one equals three’. We appreciate that we can both help each other to create a range of award-winning vanilla products that will positively impact the Tonga communities who grow the vanilla.”
Boggiss says the goal is to bring a Tongan team to Tauranga each year, and vice versa, “to appreciate and understand each other’s working environment and unique cultures”.
“This ensures full transparency across our supply chain with all stakeholders.”
She says the popularity of Heilala Vanilla has grown with the world’s pastry chefs and home bakers thanks to its uniquely profound flavour, ethical sourcing and organic growing practices. Employment now spans a number of communities – impacting the Tongan economy, especially through the company’s female employees.
“Being an integral part of Heilala Vanilla gives our female employees the confidence, knowledge and business skills to step up to more strategic roles,” says Boggiss. “As a result, there’s an instilled sense of purpose and pride which has a powerful effect on their independence, families, economic growth and the wellbeing of their communities.
“All our decisions and strategy are led by our purpose, which is to ‘empower women in agricultural communities so that their children have choices’. This purpose is incredibly important to our business and is our ‘north star’.”
Lifting your chances of success in world markets requires surrounding yourself with great people, says Boggiss, plus a governing board with relevant expertise and a team willing to do whatever it takes.
“Agility is important to meet market trends and consumer demands. For us this has been in areas of product innovation, packaging and messaging.
“Consumers are demanding to know more about the ingredients they’re consuming, and exactly what’s in their product, how it was sourced and produced.”
The market opportunity for F&B exporters is significant, Boggiss adds, but requires a transparent supply chain, clean label ingredients and social impact stories.
“The US is a key focus going forward, and with this growth we need to be managing potential supply constraints whilst our new plantations are coming on stream.”