Shirley and Michael Webb-Speight are the New Zealand distributors for Vanuatu’s Tanna Coffee owned by Terry Addlington. Although they are relatively new to the coffee distribution and retailing business, the Webb-Speight’s and their business partners have an established marketing background and are experienced entrepreneurs. Here is his story of how they became involved with Vanuatu’s coffee business:

Sorting the beans on site on Tanna Island.

Sailing over 1000 nautical miles to visit a supplier may seem a little extreme, but for us it was an opportunity to experience Tanna Island in a different way from the normal tourist track.

We had travelled to Vanuatu on holiday last year and visited the Tanna Coffee café and roastery near Port Vila.  We loved the coffee but discovered to our dismay that it wasn’t available in New Zealand. Most people bring home a t-shirt – we brought home a business idea and soon after became the New Zealand agent for Tanna Coffee.

Pacific Trade Invest (PTI) New Zealand invited us to attend the Coffee and Chocolate show in Auckland, which we gratefully accepted.  This comes at a critical time in our business. We don’t have the staff or resources to commit to such an event, but see it as a really important part of developing the Tanna Coffee brand in NZ

We are lucky at the C and C show as we are preaching to a converted audience.  PTI have arranged a stand in a great location, next to the tables where the crowd stop and eat.  We are sharing the space with the lovely team from Affirming Works who are promoting Tupu’Anga Coffee from the Kingdom of Tonga. Despite the fact we are selling the same product, we enjoy the camaraderie of our Pacific cousins and lots of our customers are interested in the Pacific Trade aspects.

In the crowded market of New Zealand coffee suppliers, we promote Tanna Coffee as being truly chemical free; being roasted and packaged as source it doesn’t get fumigated at the border.

Our story of visiting Yakil Village on Tanna island helps create a point of difference.  Our journey to Tanna is in part an exercise in verifying for ourselves that this enterprise is making a real difference to the people growing the coffee.

After a journey of several hours on 4WD tracks we arrive at the clearing under the Bunyan Tree where we meet Tom – the young chief of Yakil Village.  He takes us off down the earthen tracks between the huts housing the various families making up the village.  Everything is green in the jungle sunlight, and coffee trees are everywhere.

“When we stood here after the cyclone we could see all the way down the mountain to the sea.  All the leaves and branches had blown off the trees.  Never seen that before in my lifetime”, says Tom.  The fertility of Tanna is such that 3 months later Tom says he could no longer see the sea.  After three years we cant see any difference in the vegetation.

Tom is widely travelled – he chooses to maintain the traditional Kastom Village lifestyle and as the leader of his village he feels strongly that he needs to be with his people.  The younger village leaders like Tom are certain that education of their children is critical to their future.  Some of the old people are not sure that change is a good thing.  Education is not free in Vanuatu, but we understand that the ability to grow and sell coffee beans provides a reliable income stream

Coffee beans ready for the market.

that allows their kids to head down the road for school.

We visit the school 40 minutes back down the mountain track and find ourselves confused about the government aid programmes.  There are buildings and school yards and teachers – but the classrooms don’t appear to have books paper or pens.  Something isn’t working here. We don’t understand but we are happy to help and offload 50kg of materials we brought up with us on the 4WD.

Over in the plantation estate at the other end of the island the trees were literally blown out of the ground in Cyclone Pam.  Three years later the Tanna Coffee team are working with the villages there to regenerate, starting with creating seed beds to germinate seedlings and replant the plantations.

Almost 1000 farmers are involved in the coffee bean industry on Tanna – and they support a community of approximately 5000 people.  Clearly Cyclone Pam had a significant and lasting effect on the economy of the island, but we see strong signs of recovery everywhere, and are proud that Tanna Coffee is playing a lead role in that recovery.

Trade, not aid appears to be the solution and we are satisfied that a fair proportion of the money we pay to purchase the finished product is ending up in the hand of villagers – who have the choice on how they spend it.  It seems to us that education is their priority, and we are very happy to be involved in supporting that.

Mission accomplished, we head off to sail our boat home again across the 1000 miles of open ocean My wife chooses the aeroplane “as God intended” and is home before we have lost sight of land.

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