A new horticulture venture involving a New Zealand and a Tongan family is proving an export success for both countries.
New Zealander John Ross, his daughter Jennifer, and her husband, Garth Boggiss, started growing vanilla almost by chance.
In 2001, John, a former dairy farmer, was on a boating holiday in Vava'u islands in Tonga's north. He made friends with a local family and, when a cyclone later hit the islands, sent them money to help restore the roof of their home. To show their gratitude, the Latu family offered John the lease on some land. When he opted to grow vanilla on it, he also promised to provide work for the family.
The arrangement has blossomed into a successful business called Heilala Vanilla.
The New Zealand family grows vanilla in a thermally-heated greenhouse in the Bay of Plenty and also at the plantation it has established in Tonga.
From their factory at Te Puna, near Tauranga, they process and package a range of vanilla products for sale to retailers, chefs and food manufacturers in New Zealand, Australia, South East Asia and, more recently, the United States.
Growing vanilla is labour intensive, so there is plenty of work in Tonga for the Latu family. The crop has to be pollinated by hand and carefully handled for about six weeks after picking.
Heilala Vanilla has researched and created new products to add value and ensure that the entire crop is used.
Garth, who has a background in IT, looks after research and processing while Jennifer, an accountant, takes care of marketing, sales and administration. They have invested in research with Massey University, learning how to produce a high-quality vanilla extract and other new products like a vanilla paste and syrup. That's led to Heilala winning an impressive array of food awards in New Zealand and Australia.
Jennifer's vision is for Heilala Vanilla to grow into a global brand selling a range of vanilla products. Garth is continuing to drive research to help achieve that goal.
In Tonga, John is pleased to see the business having a positive impact on the local economy. As well as growing his own vanilla, he buys product from about 25 Tongan families. This has helped to stabilise prices, boosted confidence and encouraged locals to improve the quality of their vanilla.