Ni-Vanuatu food entrepreneur Votausi Mackenzie-Reur has, quite literally, put her money where her mouth is.A longtime champion of local produce, she's the force behind Lapita Cafe, a company based in Port Vila that manufactures snacks and flour made from island staples like manioc, taro and canarium nuts.
For years, Votausi operated a renowned eatery, serving local food, which caught the attention of travel guidebooks. It was here that she saw the need for value-added food products made from traditional produce bought directly from the country's farmers. That was in 2002.
Today, Lapita Cafe's ginger and coconut cookies and manioc chips are served on Air Vanuatu's domestic and international flights, while the Lapita brand prepares to break into Australian and New Zealand markets. In fact, Lapita was recently chosen to be part of the 'True Pacific' brand, a new campaign by the Pacific Cooperation Foundation that is promoting high quality goods of Pacific Island origin to consumers in New Zealand.
For the past two years, Votausi has worked closely with the European Union-funded Facilitating Agricultural Commodity Trade (EU-FACT) project on improving food safety and quality, developing products for export, and new packaging. Implemented by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, the EU-FACT project supports commercial ventures and producer groups in becoming export-oriented, market-driven enterprises that will consistently supply overseas markets with competitive agricultural and forestry products. Running since 2008, it provides technical assistance across an enterprise's entire supply chain.
Another Pacific enterprise that is finding new uses for old ingredients and that specialises in value-added food products is the Howman family business, T.H. Plantation, based in Apia. The enterprise makes popular chips from fresh bananas, taro and breadfruit purchased from Samoa's rural farmers. Here, too, the EU-FACT project assisted with improved processing techniques and the renovation of processing facilities to meet international standards.
An interesting fact for banana growers - both Lapita Cafe and T.H. Plantation produce banana chips but they use different varieties; Lapita Cafe favours plantains while T.H. Plantation uses the Cavendish variety.
Solomon Islanders have a long-held tradition of taking a gift of ngali nuts when visiting a neighbouring tribe or village. These nuts, produce of the evergreen tree canarium, have been frequently identified as one of the most promising underdeveloped export market opportunities in Melanesia. Now, Richard Pauku of Maraghoto Holdings in Honiara runs a small, family-owned business that works closely with rural communities to the commercialise the production ofngali and other indigenous nuts and fruits such as beach almond, cutnut, Tahitian chestnut and breadfruit. When dried, these nuts are used in commercial nut mixtures. Canarium nut oil can also be used to make body care products, and plans are under way to begin exports in 2012.
The EU-FACT project has assisted Maraghoto in a number of ways, including increasing and ensuring consistent nut supply through developing improved tree stock and supporting the recently formed Nut Growers Association of Solomon Islands, constructing solar air nut driers and processing equipment, upgrading processing and storage facilities, training local staff in food safety and quality assurance and grading, and developing local and export markets.
Rich in vitamins A and C, the pandanus fruit has also been processed. Nourishing juice and baby food products are made by a Majuro-based company, Robert Reimers Enterprises, for the local market and as carry-on exports through Marshall Islanders travelling to the United States. Current company managing director, Ramsey Reimers, sought assistance from the EU-FACT project to develop new products; to conduct supply chain and marketing analyses; and to improve plant stock and replanting, management and marketing skills, food safety standards and packaging.
The pandanus fruit is also traditionally consumed in Kiribati, and SPC has helped develop new pandanus fruit juice products.
A new use has also been found for the sap of the coconut flower and toddy. Coconut sugar is gaining international appeal as a low GI (glycemic index) food and is being produced by the Kiribati Organic Farmers Association, assisted by the EU-FACT project.
Kamaimai or coconut sap syrup is another promising product, with potential as a natural sweetener similar to golden syrup or maple syrup. This is good news for the low-lying atolls in Kiribati, where toddy and kamaimai are traditionally prepared but where there are few natural exports.
A side benefit to using traditional ingredients in new food products is the crossover appeal in high value niche markets, such as Lapita Cafe's line of wheat and gluten-free snacks and flours made with manioc flour, coconut, canarium nut and pawpaw. These have tremendous potential in the Australasian market where consumers with food allergies pay a premium for similar products.
The lessons learnt from the five-year EU-FACT project, which wraps up in 2012, will be built on in a new ?9 million 'aid for trade' project signed by the European Union and SPC in May this year. Operating in the 15 Pacific members of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, the four-year Increasing Agricultural Commodity Trade (EU-IACT) project will work to improve Pacific ACP countries' economic integration through strengthened national systems and institutional frameworks, develop their trade capacity, and increase their international market access and the competitiveness of their private sector.