A project by the Tonga National Youth Congress (TNYC) has already made a difference to communities in the outer Tongan islands.
The successful social enterprise involves the collection of fresh coconuts for processing into coconut oil for sale locally and internationally.
The programme has had an impact for three men from the village with disability. They are part of the Kolomotua Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) processing unit located in Sopu, Tongatapu.
Siaosi Vaka has been in a wheelchair since a car accident in 2006. He was married in 2011 and uses the income he earns to cover their daily needs. He told TNYC’s Mr Siotame Drew Havea of the huge difference it has made in their lives when he joined the local VCO in April this year. His job at the VCO is splitting the coconuts for crating.
He says he loves going to work and meeting other youth and feels he learns new things by working and also building relationships with other people said Mr Havea. Mr Havea had approached the Officer in Charge of the VCO Programme to see if people with disabilities wanted to come and see if there is a job they could do at the VCO.
When Siaosi’s two friends Kiteau Kuliha’a and Samuela Tonga knew Siaosi was working, they also approached the VCO to find work. Mr Kuliha’apai also told Mr Havea one day, “It makes a whole difference when you have money and can buy what you need from the shop.”
The abundance of coconuts was one of the reasons for taking up coconut oil production said Mr Havea. “We decided to set up a business focusing on coconut because every family in Tonga have coconuts even if (they) are Royalty or commoner; rich or poor, we all have access.”
An outfit called the Youth Enterprise Service Unit (YES U) was set up involving 16 communities where YES U buys coconuts from certified organic farmers and delivers them to regional collection centres where it is processed into coconut oil and then taken to the warehouse for export.
The project is able to reach remote areas where there is no economic activity and high unemployment. The business is also owned by the community. The model allows for sustainability and is organic, preserving the environment and allows farmers and communities to gain a premium price whilst including the community, Mr Havea says.
The seven villages involved have produced more than a thousand 20-litre buckets earning income for the villages.
TNYC formed a business partnership with the Tauranga based company Heilala Vanilla about a year ago in August 2014 to produce coconut oil under the Heilala brand.
The partnership with Heilala Vanilla followed on as a result of the Rural Enterprise for Sustainable Development in Tonga (RESULT) established in 2012 with support from Women in Business Development Inc. (Samoa) and Oxfam. RESULT trades in virgin coconut oil (VCO) and other coconut products including soap.
Heilala Vanilla’s Jennifer Boggiss, Director and co-founder said, “Partnering with TNYC in Tonga was a natural and perfect fit for Heilala – we have established distribution and marketing channels in the food ingredient category which we have established with Heilala Vanilla that allow us to add Heilala Coconut Oil to.
“In addition partnering with TNYC fitted with the values of Heilala, which was founded on assisting the communities of Tonga. And this value continues today as we grow our markets and product range. Partnering with TNYC allows us to partner with additional growers and communities throughout Tonga which is very important to Heilala.”
Although building market share for Heilala Coconut Oil has taken longer than anticipated due to the large number of coconut oils on the market – it is very similar to Vanilla having to educate consumers on what makes good quality coconut oil, including the difference between refined and unrefined, which is Heilala Coconut Oil.
“Not all coconut oils are equal!” says Ms Boggiss.
Almost 100 young people are employed with 200-300 involved indirectly.
Mr Havea reported back with some feedback he collected from people in the communities. In Ha’apai (Central Island Groups) families were able to afford school uniforms instead of relying on remittances from overseas relatives.
One school leaver said, “When I finish school, if no jobs are available I can make a living working at YES U. Another student said “Coconut oil is ideal because every family has coconut trees.”
For women it is a form of independence – “The income from the coconut allows me to support the family and not rely on the husband” she says.
A Community Officer from Tongatapu says that the income from the coconut means they are able to meet family and community obligations.
Even bad weather does not impact the income of the family, “now with bad weathers – we have income from the coconut and do not have to go out fishing.”
Another aspect of the production of coconut has been the ability to try other alternative livelihoods such as the promotion of eco-tourism.
TNYC is the only NGO with branches in the outer islands. It was founded in 1991 by Government, MPs, churches and community leaders allowing one youth group to register with TNYC. There are 6 offices covering the 6 island groups. Each island group elects its own Youth President and the 6 Presidents form the Governing Board and elect a TNYC President.
Their mission is to better the welfare of Tongan Youth through programmes that foster responsibility, citizenship, community service and leadership.
Pacific Islands Trade & Invest (PT&I) NZ have worked with Heilala Vanilla and continues to support efforts to import products from Tonga.