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Kiwi-Vanuatu company launches its post-Pam peanut butter

10 February 2016

A Kiwi-Vanuatu company launches its post-Pam peanut butter in New Zealand

Tanna Farms’ peanuts are planted, tended, picked, dried, cracked, roasted, crushed and packed by hand in Vanuatu. That’s why they’re the Good Stuff, says Kiwi Jono Bushell, as he launches the Tanna Farms “Crushed It” Peanut Butter in New Zealand.

When Tanna Farms launched its Coconut Oil in New Zealand in February 2015, the Kiwi and Vanuatu families behind the project thought the hardest toil was over.

Exactly one week later, Cyclone Pam carelessly tossed their small Tanna Island factory into the jungle.

One busy year on, they are sending their new “Crushed It” Peanut Butter throughout the country, and celebrating a product born of adversity.

“If it wasn’t for Pam destroying the coconut plantations and factory, we might never have ventured into peanuts,” says Marlborough man Jono Bushell. “It’s the proverbial silver lining to a bloody big dark cloud.”

Business partner Seth Kaurua, from Tanna Island, says the first factory took 18 months of hard slog to build and five minutes to blow away. The second was completed in nine months and is even better than its predecessor, with a new room attached for roasted peanuts and peanut butter.

Both begin with naturally organic nuts, grown in the rich volcanic soil of the island, then sun-dried until their shells are brittle. They’re then hand cracked to release the peanut, which is roasted in lashings of Tanna Farms Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, given a sprinkle of salt, then packaged or crushed into butter.

Seth says the nuts have been a lifeline for the business and a vital income source for farmers who lost coconut and coffee plantations to Pam, but could sell peanut crops within three months of planting.

For those without land, the new products have provided jobs in a time of great need, says Jono. “They’re planted by hand, harvested by hand and dried by hand, so we’re creating a top-notch product that brings sustainable employment to the island.”

Jono first visited Vanuatu in 2007, on a mission to recruit Ni-Vanuatu for work in New Zealand’s wine and horticultural industries, through contract labour business Vinepower, which he owns with Jason Kennard.

Under the New Zealand Government’s Recognised Seasonal Employment Scheme (RSE), Pacific Island nationals can work in New Zealand during peak seasons, to ease labour shortages in vines and orchards.

In turn, the RSE workers bring much needed earnings, as well as new skills, to developing Pacific Islands.

Jono soon fell for the culture and people of Vanuatu, and in particular for remote Tanna Island, with its live volcano, golden beaches and largely abandoned coconut plantations.

But for all the happiness he saw in the communal gardens and village communities, there was also hardship, with many children going without education and healthcare.

The RSE scheme made a significant difference, but he and Jason became concerned that their employees had no work when they returned home, and that others on the island could not earn from the programme.

They joined forces with Seth and his wife Germaine Koniamek, who had both been RSE employees in the past, and looked at ways to create community-based employment on Tanna.

In 2013, the three families established Tanna Farms to create a market for produce from coconut plantations that had been largely abandoned since the market for copra - the dried kernel of the coconut – ended in the 1980s.

The island’s coconut palms are still recovering from the category five Cyclone Pam, but Jono and Seth have been bringing in coconuts from neighbouring islands, in order to get the mill and staff working again.

They hope to start buying from Tanna Island plantations in the next six to eight weeks, taking the factory closer to full production. Meanwhile, the peanut room is busy keeping up with demand for nuts and peanut butter.

Demand is hot, with customers commenting that the peanut butter tastes like it used to, says Jono. “We’re getting fantastic feedback from people who love its taste and texture, and love that it’s made in a purely natural way. They say we’re making peanut butter better. We say, ‘we’ve crushed it!’”

The focus now is on increasing the supply of Tanna’s red peanuts, which are sweeter than the white ones, and provide a real point of difference.

They’re grown at the company’s own farm at Middle Bush, and also bought from private growers like Winjoe Yahpie, who worked for Vinepower in Marlborough vineyards for several winters, then put what he’d earned and learned into his own plantation, in order to supply Tanna Farms with peanuts and coconuts.

“That’s economic empowerment,” says Jono. “That’s exactly what we want to see more of.”

Tanna Farms is not about handouts, he says. “It’s about building a sustainable business for the future, for generations to come.”
With the factory rebuilt and the demand booming, he spends much of his time on his 250cc Suzuki Volty, tearing down the dusty roads of Vanuatu’s main island Efate, under the shimmying shadows of coconut palms.
Wearing a bright floral shirt and a child-like grin, he’s at his element on this “Nut Job”, delivering Tanna Farms’ peanut products to resorts, bars and shops around Port Vila.

There’s good news and bad news about such “nutty success”.

The good news is that demand goes up on a weekly basis, with the Tanna Farms Roasted Peanuts quickly chomped at resorts and bars, and the Crushed It Peanut Butter selling (and selling out) at stores across the country’s main island of Efate.

The bad news is that the “Nut Job” has a shelf life, because Jono and his motorbike can’t keep up with the demand.

Neither he nor Seth are complaining, instead predicting that 2016 will be “the year” for Tanna Farms, following the double factory build in 2015. “They say if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you better,” says Jono. “It didn’t and we are, so we reckon this year we’ll crush it.”


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