Vanilla with purpose: a recipe for sustainable communities

Following the devastating cyclone in 2002, New Zealander John Ross was determined to help the village community in Vava’u, Tonga. John and his family had come to know and love the island community from previous visits. So, he wanted to help them get back on their feet. He recognised the need to create sustainable livelihoods and employment for the communities, and so began investigating opportunities, including sustainable vanilla farming, to create a purpose-led business.

Fast forward three years and John’s unwavering commitment yielded the first 40kgs of vanilla in 2005. Co-founder and daughter, Jennifer Boggiss shared it with chefs in New Zealand and, after rave reviews, a vanilla business was born—Heilala. 

We sat down with Jennifer (CEO) and Ruby (GM Brand & Marketing) to hear Heilala’s story. Their respect for the Tongan culture, and unwavering commitment to the original purpose of the company, shone through unequivocally.

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Tell us about the opportunities Heilala provides for communities in Tonga.

Heilala started on a single plantation on Vava’u, partnering with the Latu family. Since then, it has expanded to work with smallholder farmers across Tonga. The farmers grow the vanilla, supply the green beans to Heilala, and we dry them at the original farm.

The community working on the vanilla farms has a real feeling of camaraderie. There’s lots of chatting and laughing, as they undertake the artisan process of hand pollinating the flowers, then curing and drying under the sun following traditional methods. It is as much an art as it is a science.

Vanilla beans bundled for the purpose of drying
Vanilla production is as much an art as it is a science. Photo provided by Heilala.

In 2016, His Majesty allocated us two 50-acre blocks in recognition of the employment and economic  development we provide in the community. The farms provide employment for 20 people while they are being established (closed borders and the January 2022 eruption and tsunami have caused delays). 

Once in production the goal is to provide employment for 200 women. There are not a lot of employment opportunities for women. So, the flow on effect of having their own income is significant, creating opportunities for their families.

How does the Heilala Foundation support the community?

The Heilala Foundation was established in 2013. It was funded by proceeds from product sold (for every unit of vanilla sold, the foundation receives 5 cents). There are three main pillars for initiatives: community, education, and family wellbeing. Many of the initiatives come through Sela (our Tonga manager) who hears about needs in the community and make recommendations.

Some examples of support include supplying an outboard motor to a family who live on an outer island, so their children can get to school. In another example, two girls had finished school and were starting a business sewing and selling clothes, so we purchased a sewing machine and overlocker for them. Another cool project was for ‘Eua, a lesser-known island, where about half of our vanilla farmers are based. We provided desks and chairs for classes at their school. The principal said “this is life changing for these kids, and you should see the happy smiles on their faces”.

When the 2022 eruption and tsunami occurred, we engaged our global community—businesses, home bakers, and the likes of Bon Appetit magazine and their community in the USA—to support Tonga. The Foundation received over $180,000 in donations from all around the globe. 

We have worked with MORDI (an NGO operating in Tonga) for over 10 years. Following the disaster, we partnered to re-establish their shade house which supplies over 15,000 vegetable and fruit tree seedlings to Tongan villages and communities each year. We also supplied a range of essential items such as clothing, first aid kits, food, and household items.

A Tongan Heilala manager, Sela, holding a jar of vanilla paste
Tonga manager, Sela, hears about needs in the community and makes recommendations for initiatives. Photo provided by Heilala.

You’re the first vanilla company to become BCorp certified, what drew you to becoming certified?

There is so much greenwashing. So, it is great to have a certification for transparency and validation of the brand and what we inherently do. There are so many certifications available. But we are quite a unique business model, and when we looked at BCorp we were a natural fit. 

The certification is very relevant to the industry as there are human rights issues in some other vanilla producing regions. Since becoming certified, we have been recognised by Forbes as the world’s most sustainable vanilla.

For our NZ based team, BCorp has been a great way to engage about sustainable living. In BCorp month, we developed a BCorp Bingo challenge. It included 16 different initiatives you could cross off, and there was a competition to see who could do the most tasks. It was simple things we all do, so was very accessible—using a cold wash cycle, biking to work, purchasing from a second-hand shop, dropping off clothes, making bread from scratch, and of course, home baking.

You’ve recently had a big win in the US market, being listed in Sprouts, what’s next for Heilala and the Foundation?

We are looking to continue our growth toward being a global premium vanilla brand. This will help put Tonga on the global foodie map. Every stage of growth means more support for the Foundation, and a larger group of communities that can be impacted through various projects and ongoing sustainable livelihoods. The more successful the business, the more the Foundation can do.

💚 Top three for sustainability (Jennifer)

Who is the person you admire most in the sustainability space?

I have two, the first is David Attenborough—I liken him to my father, being in that age bracket where they are really passionate about doing their bit for the planet and people. The second is my nephew Finn Ross. He is very passionate about sustainability. He founded an exchange for traceable native carbon credits called CarbonZ, is doing a PhD in seaweed and a climate change solution, and is involved in a multitude of other sustainability initiatives. People like Finn give me hope for the future.

What is a tool that helps you live more sustainably? 

Having a low waste mindset. This means we do lots of little things, things like composting coffee grounds and recycling our soft plastic from the office.

What would be one piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to start a for-purpose business?

Have a really strong personal purpose, or ‘why’, to push through, as there are so many challenges and roadblocks. You have to have so much resilience to build a business, and if you don’t have a strong purpose or ‘why’ it would make it too easy to give up.

Glimmer is committed to supporting initiatives like Heilala, working to help people, our communities and our planet thrive. We seek to tell the stories of the quiet sustainability heroes, working tirelessly to build a better world.

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