When Cornelia Wyllie of Fine Foods Limited in Vanuatu, developed meal packs of taro, beef or pork a few years ago, the aim was providing healthful tasty meals for ni-Vanuatu workers on the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme in New Zealand.

The heat-and-eat meal packs.

But today the meal packs could reach a wider customer base and even be used as an option for food security during rapid relief operations following natural disasters.

Fine Foods offers pre-cooked diced taro, sliced cassava or kumara packs as well as the heat and eat meal packs in pouches. The meal packs branded Natur’kai contain two individual parcels of grated cassava blended with either taro, banana or kumara encasing minced beef, pork and wrapped in a banana leaf – similar to tamales of Central and South America.  “The smoked spices from the spice network in Santo plus the rich coconut cream add the authentic flavour notes of the South Pacific,” said Mrs Wyllie.  The pouches can be heated through in 10-15 minutes and the contents are ready to eat.

Mrs Wyllie was part of the Pacific Trade Invest (PT&I) NZ Pacific Path to Market delegation to Pasifika Festival in Auckland recently.  A group of 25 small business representatives from eight Pacific Islands were part of the Pacific Path to Market programme to better understand the New Zealand market and spark interest in potential buyers.

Cornelia Wyllie

Mrs Wyllie noted the biggest demand at Pasifika was mostly from European and Asian buyers, campers and travellers who were interested in heat and eat type meals or those looking for something new.  At Fine Food Australia in Melbourne leads came from China for the F Juice (Feijoa) and New Zealand for the Spicy’kai sauces.  Interest also came from the Italian, Greek, European and Chinese buyers who were interested in bulk buying for the food service trade.

The first New Zealand shipment of Natur’kai products in 2015 went to the RSE workers in Hastings and the Bay of Plenty – a non-meat version known locally as simboro (the meat version is called Tuluk).  The ni-Vanuatu workers loved the product and wanted more.   After new equipment was installed,  Fine Foods now exports over 70 tonnes of mixed products to New Zealand.  The company has certification to export to Australia, New Zealand and USA.  Although product volumes sold to New Zealand are still relatively minor compared to Australia, branding the products Natur’Kai or Natural Food means they can better position themselves for future marketing into Europe.

The current demand in New Zealand comes from three main areas – importers Vine Power, owners of Tanna Farms who are contracted to grow taro for Fine Foods.    When the RSE workers return to Vanuatu, they grow the taro which is then supplied to Fine Foods.  On returning to New Zealand, they buy the finished product from Fine Foods.  “It’s a full loop,” Mrs Wyllie said.

The second group comprises two RSE agents who will slot the foods into their RSE induction programmes.  Mrs Wyllie is currently in the process of contacting the New Zealand employers. The third group is part of the National Disaster Management Office.

Kids enjoying a plate of a Natur’kai heat-and-eat dish.

Prior to Tropical Cyclone Pam’s trail of destruction across Vanuatu in 2015, Dr Chris Bartlett of the National Disaster Management Office had visited the Fine Foods factory.  Dr Bartlett was the team leader of the Rapid Response Team following Cyclone Pam and tried to order their entire stock.  But Fine Foods didn’t have the equipment installed and couldn’t supply more.

Since then, the company has bought new equipment and upped the level on packaging.  Because the packs could potentially be used as food packs during natural disasters, the company hired a food technologist to create packs to military standard thickness aluminised pouches.  But for everyday use, however, the regular export packs are sufficient with an 18-month shelf life.  As a result of the Auckland visit, a visual panel will be added to the packaging and the packs will be microwaveable.  In the meantime, Mrs Wyllie sister Petra, a Manurewa Auckland school teacher, will hold product evaluations with staff and students.

Vanuatu’s attendance on the Pacific Path to Market delegation to Pasifika Festival this year is a sign that despite the devastation caused by Cyclone Pam, the islands are continuing the uphill battle to get back to their pre-Cyclone Pam days.

Mrs Wyllie said the Vanuatu agriculture sector will take a few more years to recover.  Long term crops such as coffee, cocoa will take another year as they needed to be pruned heavily to reshape after CT PAM.

Short term cash crops such as manioc, taro, kumara are so important to the recovery phase as the sales give a little cash flow whilst forestry and long term crops (kava) recover. Forestry and coconut are looking at setting up more nurseries for replanting. Vanuatu’s growing tourism industry is looking forward to the airport upgrade.

For more information please contact Joe Fuavao, PT&I Trade Development Manager on joe.f@pacifictradeinvest.co.nz

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