Tauranga’s Heilala Vanilla raising funds for Tongan relief

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Tauranga export success company Heilala Vanilla has managed to exceed the fundraising goal it set to assist the islands of Tonga following January’s devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami.

The premium vanilla company set up a donation page to assist with the relief efforts, with an initial goal of $100,000. Following an overwhelming response, this total has been exceeded, with more than $140,000 being donated to date.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by our support community globally, it’s really humbling,” chief executive Jennifer Boggis told Bay of Plenty Business News.

The company’s focus, once the islands’ immediate food supplies are met, will be setting up nursery seedlings on the ground. This is something the company has done before, taking time to scale production across multiple villages and locations.

Ironically, the company originally came into being to assist the country after an earlier disaster. The partnership between Heilala Vanilla and the people of Vava’u began as an aid project helping to rebuild after a cyclone in 2002. This initial act by company founder John Ross led to the founding of Heilala Vanilla.

The company has developed a range of vanilla products, including vanilla beans, vanilla extract, vanilla paste, vanilla sugar, vanilla syrup and ground vanilla powder. And it has built up an enviable reputation among home bakers, chefs and gourmet food manufacturers around the world. The company says it is based on the principles of fair trade and to support livelihoods.

Charity funding exceeds expectations

“This funding has far exceeded our expectations as it was just a dream a week ago,” said Boggis.

“It shows the power of community and the importance of coming together to help us do even more for Tonga than we ever anticipated.”

Heilala’s community, both locally and globally, has been generous in its support of the fund, with Tauranga-based Comvita also making a significant donation. Mount Maunganui Sea People Ice Cream will be donating all profits made from its vanilla ice cream Sammies to the Tonga Tsunami relief fund until the end of January. And prominent San Francisco baker (and Heilala customer) Butter& has added a donation feature at its checkout.

Since news broke, the Heilala team has been in contact with MORDI (the company’s partner in Tonga) and has been updated on the situation, particularly in Tongatapu, Haa’api and ‘Eua where crops have been badly affected as a result of the eruption and subsequent tsunami. This is expected to cause a huge food shortage impacting all crops including bananas, cassava, yams, taro, pineapple, watermelon and kava.

Heilala is yet to have direct communication with its vanilla farmers on ‘Eua, but the team is hoping the hardy, waxy nature of the vanilla plant will protect it from the extensive damage impacting other crops. Boggis told Bay of Plenty Business News that fortunately the company’s own vanilla supplies for the coming season were in good shape as they had already brought in their crop prior to the explosion.

Heilala is working with MORDI to formulate a plan for the funds to ensure immediate needs are met, with food being the most pressing requirement. Eleven pallets of food were being shipped in January and these shipments will continue until the immediate food shortage is alleviated.

Once the immediate needs are met, Heilala’s medium-term focus will shift to establishing seedling nurseries. The Heilala team implemented a similar approach following Cyclone Harold in 2020. This will involve providing and planting seeds, building materials and resourcing for the nurseries over multiple locations, to ensure vegetable plants get to the rural communities impacted.

Related: Heilala Vanilla wins new-look Westpac Business Awards

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