Heilala Vanilla is expanding its operations in Tonga to meet increasing international demand for its vanilla. 

CEO Jennifer Bogiss (centre) with her staff in Tonga. Heilala Vanilla aims to increase its workforce by more than 200 in its expansion projects with a focus on employing women.

Heilala Vanilla has developed and built vanilla exports from Tonga over the past ten years.  It is now one of Tonga’s biggest vanilla exporters.

The biggest demand has come from the United States where sales have increased by 300 per cent in 12 months, Heilala Vanilla CEO and Co-founder Jennifer Bogiss told Pacific Periscope.

Heilala had been exporting to the United States for the past five years to restaurants on both the East and West Coasts. They are also selling their range of vanilla products online through Amazon.

Heilala Vanilla is celebrating its tenth anniversary. It has recently planted 100 acres of vanilla on the Tongan island of Vava’u in partnership with a respected local farmer and plans to add another 50 acres in ‘Eua early in 2019.

The business was founded in Vava’u by John Ross following Cyclone Waka in 2002 to assist the community with employment and today his daughter Jennifer Boggiss is CEO. Jennifer left her job as an accountant 10 years ago to take up the role.

The expansion coincides with a series of worldwide events that has bumped up vanilla prices from $300 a kilo to $700 a kilo today.

The decreased supply from the world’s biggest vanilla supplier, Madagascar, occurred after a cyclone damaged crops and diminished supplies.

Ms Bogiss (right) with Heilala General Manager Sales & Marketing Ruby Grant with chefs at a New York restaurant.

But Tonga also faced adversity from Cyclone Gita, the biggest to hit Tonga in 60 years. Thousands of homes, buildings and plantations were destroyed. Vanilla plantations on ‘Eua bore the brunt of Cyclone Gita in February 2018. The damage resulted in the loss of approximately a third of all the crop on the island.

In the last six to eight months however, Heilala Vanilla has employed 40 people to develop the 100 acres in Vava’u and once they are in production in 2022, the company aims to employ more than 200 people with a focus on employing women.

Their vanilla exports from Tonga are expected to be 8 times higher from 2022.   Ms Boggiss could not reveal the volumes of vanilla or value of vanilla exported due to commercial sensitivity.

The company provides employment for the people of Tonga where it would not otherwise exist said Ms Boggiss. The workers are also paid double the average wage.

Growing vanilla is painstaking.  The process is highly labour intensive as the plants do not flower for three years. Once they do, they must be hand pollinated within four hours of opening. The pods are dried and cured over three months under the South Pacific Sun and then exported to Heilala Vanilla’s processing plant in Tauranga, New Zealand, where they are turned into a wide range of products: extract, vanilla paste, syrup and sugar.

Heilala Vanilla has four main markets, but Australia is the biggest. They have partnerships with other vanilla growers and have plan to expand to the Cook Islands, Samoa and the wider Pacific.

It is a long way from the early days when Ms Boggiss father, John Ross started a vanilla plantation in Tonga in 2002 as a social enterprise, to help bring income for the local community. Their first 45kg was exported in 2005. In 2010 it went up to two tonnes. They have also continued their productive research and development partnership with Massey University who have been with them from the start.

For more information please contact: Ian Furlong, PTI NZ Trade Development Manager on ian.f@pacifictradeinvest.co.nz

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