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  • Writer's pictureSam MacKinnon

Knook #18: Heilala Vanilla

Heilala Vanilla has been operating their vanilla plantations in Tonga for over 10 years. Photo: Supplied

Vanilla is something most would have used but few would have considered where the raw product comes from. 98% of the world's vanilla consumption is artificial, only 2% is the real deal, from plantations. Products that are labelled as vanilla essence are typically imitation vanilla, a man-made chemical compound that mimics the flavour and aroma of vanilla.

Tauranga-based Heilala Vanilla has been operating their vanilla plantations in Tonga for over 10 years. Co-founder and CEO, Jennifer Boggiss says that “while producing award-winning vanilla is our specialty, empowering and investing in the communities of Tonga is at the absolute core of everything we do.”

I asked Jennifer how Heilala Vanilla got started.

“For a significant birthday, my father, John Ross - a retired farmer from Papakura - sailed to Vava’u, in the Kingdom of Tonga on a boat he’d built himself. He fell in love with the place and the people. When Cyclone Waka caused extensive damage to the Vava’u island group, he travelled back with friends from his Rotary Club to help with the clean-up. As a way to thank John for his efforts, a local family gifted him a plot of land in exchange for him using it to provide employment for those in the village.

“On a previous trip to Tonga, John had discovered vanilla orchids running wild and after some research and visits to established vanilla farms in Réunion Island, Tahiti and Madagascar, he got to work on his own plot and subsequently partnered with other growers throughout Tonga to establish vanilla plantations.”

Heilala CEO and co-founder, Jennifer Boggiss. Photo: Supplied

I asked Jennifer what the motivation behind the brand was.

“Home bakers and chefs today are demanding to know more about the ingredients they’re consuming, they want to know exactly what’s in their food, and they want to know how it was sourced and produced,” says Jennifer.

“Heilala’s transparent supply chain, clean label ingredients and positive social impact to local grower communities, along with support from customers, inspire us to continue growing vanilla with a best practice focus.

“In 2018, we completed 100 acres of vanilla planting in Tonga, which will enable us to continue to positively impact our grower communities in Tonga into the future.

“The growth will result in increased employment, particularly of local women in Tonga. As a result, there is an instilled sense of purpose and pride, which has a powerful effect on their independence, families, economic growth and the well-being of their communities. Heilala has a goal for 200 women to be employed in the vanilla industry in Tonga by 2022.”

Vanilla has undoubtedly been taken for granted - perhaps surprising given how labour-intensive the growing process is. I asked Jennifer to give me the lowdown on how vanilla is grown.

“As one of the most labour-intensive crops in the world, there are lots of challenges growing vanilla! Our variety of vanilla is the Bourbon or Madagascar Bourbon variety. The orchid flower must be pollinated by hand,” says Jennifer.

“Once pollination is complete, the fully grown green bean is ready to be picked after about 9 months. They must then be blanched, sweated, dried and cured, which develops the flavour and turns the bean a dark brown or black colour. Climatic conditions play a major role as vanilla grows best in hot, humid conditions, and the plants require moderate rainfall evenly distributed through 10 months of the year, in order to thrive.

“The annual harvest of vanilla beans is brought back to Tauranga, New Zealand where we manufacture the full range of vanilla products including extracts, pastes, syrup and sugar products.”

Vanilla has to be hand pollinated to grow. Photo: Supplied

Heilala Vanilla has won numerous awards and is highly recommended by food writers and chefs globally. I asked Jennifer what she sees as key to Heilala’s success so far.

Says Jennifer, “Typically vanilla is traded as a commodity similar to cocoa and coffee and can go through over ten sets of traders to reach the customer – this makes Heilala globally unique as a vanilla producer that grows, manufactures and markets the spice itself.

“We are also empowering the people of Tonga with a rich local industry and thriving future. Heilala’s commitment to their grower families is to promote intergenerational self-sufficiency while also harvesting superior quality vanilla.

“I believe the combination of focus on quality and our humanitarian mission has put us in good stead, and has contributed greatly to our ongoing success.”

I asked Jennifer what the biggest challenge has been in running the business.

“Balancing our purpose with financial growth aspirations so that we can sustainability deliver impact through Tongan agricultural communities for future generations is an ongoing challenge! It’s something we keep on the agenda at every board meeting to ensure it is always top of mind as owners and directors.”

Vanilla beans through the stages of drying. Photo: Supplied

Heilala sells their vanilla around the world. I asked Jennifer how they’ve found the experience of growing the export part of their business.

“We currently export to Australia, USA, UK, Europe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan,” says Jennifer.

“Australia and the USA are our two biggest markets and each market is not without its challenges including government regulation, distribution, building a brand and as a small team you learn as you go.

“Dipping our toes into the digital online space in the USA when no one in the vanilla space was doing it was a turning point for us. Within 12 months, it became a quarter of our revenue and provided us with an invaluable launchpad to build our brand in North America.”

I asked Jennifer what advice she’d give to other business owners.

“Good governance matters, and having engaged directors that are experts in their field is invaluable to the long-term strategy and success of any organisation. That’s been extremely valuable for us as we approach growth and new markets.”

I asked Jennifer what’s next for Heilala.

“We recently started making vanilla hand sanitiser! We’ve taken advantage of our production capabilities to produce a commercial grade sanitizer as we had stock on hand of the key ingredients which are also used in the vanilla extract manufacturing process.

“We realized that we could make this product quickly and get it shipped to Tongan hospitals to help keep communities safe throughout Covid-19. We then had significant demand from customers in New Zealand who wanted the product, so perhaps Heilala hand sanitiser might be around for a while yet!”

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