Heilala Vanilla Q&A

From what began as an aid project after a cyclone is now an award-winning company, one that provides employment and infrastructure across the Tongan community. Good caught up with Heilala Vanilla CEO Jennifer Boggiss, to discuss what sets Heilala Vanilla apart from the rest. 

How did Heilala Vanilla start?

For his 60th birthday, retired South Auckland farmer (and soon to be Heilala co-founder) John Ross 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 and 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, 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.

Typically vanilla is traded as a commodity similar to cocoa and coffee which makes Heilala unique as it is the world’s only vanilla producer that grows, manufactures and markets the spice itself.      

10 years later, what have been some of your biggest successes?

There have been many milestones; winning numerous local and export awards, seeing Heilala Vanilla on display in the Tokyo post office building in Japan, along with being featured on the menu of the ‘World’s Best’ restaurant in 2017 – Eleven Madison Park were all exciting moments.

Last year we completed 100 acres of vanilla planting in Tonga, which will set us up for our next stage of growth and enable us to continue to positively impact our grower communities in Tonga – which is our reason for being.

What sets Heilala apart from its competitors?

The global market for pure vanilla is considered to be small, by some estimates 2 per cent of the global vanilla trade. The main competition Heilala faces is from synthetic vanilla which globally accounts for more than 90 per cent of the vanilla flavouring.

Consumers today are demanding to know more about the ingredients they’re consuming, they want to know exactly what’s in their food, how it was sourced and produced. Heilala’s transparent supply chain, clean label ingredients and positive social impact to local grower communities sets us apart.

What have been some of your biggest challenges to date?

As one of the most labour-intensive crops in the world, growing vanilla is an ongoing challenging – the flower must be pollinated by hand and then the beans must be blanched, sweated, dried and cured. 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.

What plans do you have for the future?

As our newly planted crops begin producing, the increased annual harvest of vanilla beans will allow us to further build our export markets. The growth will result in increased employment, particularly of local women in Tonga. Being an integral part of Heilala Vanilla gives our team the confidence, knowledge and business skills to step up to more strategic roles. 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.

Have you got any new products on the horizon?

R&D is a strong focus for us – our latest product ‘Breakfast Vanilla’ is made via a glycerin extraction to ensure it is alcohol-free. Chopped vanilla beans infuse in glycerin allowing time for full flavour extraction, as well as the inclusion of flavourful vanilla seeds. It’s a great way to add flavour to your morning meal without the sugar – simply add a teaspoon to porridge, muesli, yoghurt, smoothies or even coffee.

To learn more, visit Heilala Vanilla’s website. 

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