Heilala Vanilla says the vanilla industry could place Tonga on the map as Fiji Water has done for Fiji.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron.
Presenter: Campbell Cooney
Speaker:Jennifer Boggiss, Director of Heilala Vanilla
BOGGIS: At the moment it's quite fragmented and we've had to work quite hard to get collaboration between growers and things, so that's been a challenge and will continue to be a challenge for us.
COONEY: When you say fragmented, what families, small farms, small village growing?
BOGGIS: Yes, yes.
COONEY: How are you getting it together to try and get I suppose a concerted effort, and I suppose to be able to market it as something that you can guarantee supply of and guarantee quality of?
BOGGIS: Yeah well there's two sides to our business, obviously there's the Tongan side where we set up our own plantation and we've got some other growers that we work with and we need to increase those amount of growers in the coming years. And then there's the New Zealand side of the business, which is where we process products, research and development and marketing.
COONEY: Are you getting much interest from people in Tonga to expand their growing or to take it on?
BOGGIS: Yes over the last sort of few years that's what we've been working on, but in the next couple of years we need to find more growers and probably try and work with Tongan government agencies to tie in growers.
COONEY: When you're talking about the markets, New Zealand I take it is one of the markets, but where else?
BOGGIS: We currently sell into Australia, I think we're in about 300 specialty food retail stores, including Thomas Dux and then Heilala Vanilla syrup is sold at Williams-Sonoma stores in the US, there's about 200 of those stores. And we're also just starting into a couple of other retail chains in the US. So we have quite grand visions of Heilala Vanilla becoming a globally recognised vanilla brand.
COONEY: When you start talking about those markets, what are they asking for? Are they looking to make sure it's organic in the way that it's sustainable, the people who are actually growing it get something out of it? Are they the sort of things that your markets are looking for?
BOGGIS: Definitely they're looking for the story behind the product is really important and we've got a very rich PR story to tell in terms of South Pacific collaboration really between Tonga and New Zealand. And obviously there's the organic fair trade angle to our product as well. We're not certified in either of those areas but we have a very genuine angle to tell in those areas.
COONEY: I didn't realise until looking into this that it's the second most expensive spice in the world. Now I've bought saffron and I thought at one stage that I was someone who had pounded out and shredded a gold ring for the price that I was paying for that. I mean when you start talking about those comparisons, price per kilogram, what are we talking about?
BOGGIS: Well vanilla's a lot like sort of cocoa and coffee, it can fluctuate the price per kilo that is paid, and that's another challenge for us is to bring about some sort of consistency in pricing for Tonga and for the farmers. So currently probably sort of anywhere from 100 dollars, depending on the grade of the vanilla, through to 300 dollars a kilo.
COONEY: I suppose it comes down to it, you don't need a lot for a product, I suppose that's the point that must be made, you don't need like two kilos to cook something?
BOGGIS: No, no you need a teaspoon, and a teaspoon of vanilla paste, which is equivalent to one vanilla bean I think it probably works out at about a dollar, so to add that gourmet touch to a dessert or something it's not an expensive product.
COONEY: And you mentioned that there's a few steps to be taken, what's next and how will it proceed?
BOGGIS: Well now that we have some investment behind the company we're looking at ramping up our marketing in Australia and the US. Obviously they're a lot bigger markets than New Zealand, so that's where we want to take the product, and we're also talking to people in the UK and Japan. But we want to do it in a sustainable manageable way, so it's sort of one step at a time.
COONEY: You mentioned talking to government officers in Tonga. Have earlier approaches been good, is there interest over there?
BOGGIS: Well my father John Ross looks after that side of it and he's up in Tonga next week so he'll be talking to some industry official people there.