Johnny Willie coffee grower Tanna

Interview with Terry Adlington, Managing Director of Tanna Coffee Development

Johnny Willie coffee grower Tanna

Thursday, 17 January 2019 Mis à jour le Wednesday, 3 October 2018

When anyone visits Vanuatu it is virtually impossible not to drink Tanna Coffee at some stage, as it is one of the leading iconic brands and symbol of the country.

Could you tell us about the story of Tanna Coffee...its lands, its farmers, its future expansion program etc.

Coffee growing on Tanna Island has a lengthy history dating as far back as 1852, when it was first introduced by foreign ‘sandalwood’ traders sailing round the New Hebrides Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. Following European settlement of the lush and fertile islands, a thriving coffee industry was eventually established growing only top quality Arabica Coffee beans. The wonderfully aromatic coffee was highly sought after and was exported direct to Britain and to Europe and within the space of only 50 years (due mainly to the exceptional quality) there was enormous investments made and annual production rose to a very credible 200tonne.

However, a combination of coffee leaf-rust disease (CLR) and the Great Depression of 1920’s seriously damaged the Industry again, but was quickly revived by Robusta Coffee production that prospered until 1939, with recorded annual production of 900tonne. But then the outbreak of the Second World War intervened and the entire industry was decimated again. There was very little done to revive the Industry until early 1980’s when Vanuatu gained independence from the colonial powers of France & Britain. In a gesture aimed toward promoting national economic development through agriculture, the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) revived the coffee industry and established the Tanna Coffee Development Co. Ltd.

Over 200Ha of new ‘Arabica’ coffee trees were planted and a 500tpa coffee processing facility was established, however these developments were totally destroyed by T.C. UMA in 1986 and following a major six year re-establishment, was decimated again by coffee leaf-rust disease. However, a particular ‘hybrid’ coffee actually survived and in fact was ‘blossoming’ within the unique climatic conditions that prevail on Tanna Island. Foreign investors had purchased the failed Company and tried to re-invigorate it using the ‘hybrid’ coffee as a basis, however using the same CDC colonial approach proved an abject failure and a totally new focus was needed, in order to re-configure the overall industry direction and concentrate efforts onto the market.

Under new Company Management, a small-holder coffee industry was quickly formulated and developed with 350 coffee farmers involved and over 350,000 seedlings produced and broadly distributed throughout the coffee growing regions of Tanna Island. Detailed Workshops and important Technical training sessions were undertaken, in order to up-skill and thus empower all of the farmers into ultimately becoming self-sufficient entrepreneurs, instead of employees, who would then be responsible for their own individual coffee blocks and therefore in charge of their own earning capacity. This successful program was undertaken in conjunction with the farmers, through developing an inclusive business model within the Company structure.

Johnny Willie coffee grower Tanna

Johnny Willie coffee grower Tanna

The focus was primarily to encourage value-addition wet processing by the farmers in order to maximize their overall earning capacity through undertaking the extra work involved in the dry processing, resulting in the farmers receiving 270vt/Kg for sun-dried parchment coffee paid in cash at the farm-gate, instead of receiving only 7vt/Kg for picking coffee cherries all day long. The up-side for the Company was that it could then minimize overall operating costs through substantial reductions in employee numbers, whilst facilitating an enormous socio-economic improvement to the individual small-holder farmer incomes, which increased opportunities to improve overall community living standards and maximize health and education for children.

The Company’s future objective is to continue to expand and develop its production base, in order to satisfy and fulfill current demands from overseas. This will be done through utilizing and re-developing the previously planted (but now abandoned) former 200Ha coffee plantation by the allocation of individual 1Ha blocks to participating small-holder farmers. These farmers will grow coffee and a range of other commercially viable food crops through utilizing an inter-cropping regime on estate land under license to the Company. This project has been recently formulated through detailed discussions between the Estate Landowners and Company, with the Landowners group taking on the roles and responsibilities for selecting and allocating the individual farm blocks, as well as managing the selected crops and the small-holder farmers.

Tanna coffee is found in many cafes and restaurants, Air Vanuatu and other tourist spots. What are your linkages with the tourist-markets and are they evolving? Do you see more tourists interested in local quality products?

Virtually everybody living in Vanuatu is not only aware of Tanna Coffee being a ‘top quality’ local product, but they also drink it on a regular basis and are justifiably proud of it as well, in terms of its overall quality and the international reputation that it has attracted. Tanna Coffee is one of only a handful of truly iconic ‘natural’ products that are actually grown, produced or manufactured in Vanuatu and consequently most of the Resorts, Hotels, Restaurants, Cafes and Supermarkets are quite proud to serve it and promote it to their customers as well. The Company currently holds an 85% market-share of the entire Roast and Ground Coffee supply.

In order to cater to increasing demands from Hotels, Resorts and Tour Operators within the Vanuatu Tourism Industry, the Company opened its quaint Roasting and Packaging Factory in Port Vila to the general public over 5 years ago and this has proven to be a very successful venture. When you consider that Vanuatu receives around 250,000 tourists a year, there is a fairly constant stream of fly-in tourists that visit the Factory each day, however with more than 160 Cruise Ship visits scheduled for this up-coming year, the factory will host an average 200 people on each occasion which equates to an average visitation of around 100 people per day.

Therefore, with most available sales and marketing opportunities already covered, the only other local areas that were not covered was the actual Airlines and Cruise Ships that supply the constant stream of tourists. Air Vanuatu were delighted to utilize and serve Tanna Coffee as their on-board coffee and following detailed trials and compliance with their machinery and equipment, it was accepted. Similarly, P&O Cruises were keen to offer and serve Tanna Coffee as an alternative option in their on-board Restaurants and Cafes, but this (along with the retail packaged coffee sales) in their on-board Duty Free stores, has proven to be quite difficult.

Consequently, there are very few opportunities left to expand the business further in Vanuatu and the current emphasis is aimed towards increasing sales within the regional market arena of Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand, New Caledonia and Australia where Roasted & Packaged annual exports amounting to almost 15,000Kg per year are already being undertaken through various means. These include sales of Dry Green Bean to a major New Zealand roasting company and sales to a joint-venture roasting partner in Samoa, along with supplies of roasted & packaged coffee being supplied regularly to customers/agents in Fiji, New Caledonia and Australia.

How do you see expanding the business and what would you need to get to the next level (i.e. training the farmers to keep or improve the quality?), government support, investment etc.

There is an obvious need to expand the business dramatically in order to ensure that all the demands are met and satisfied, however getting to the next level is proving to be quite difficult and very frustrating, in that neither the Company nor the Coffee Industry receives any outside support, as witnessed recently by the absolute devastation caused by the Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Pam 12 months ago. To date there has been absolutely no support provided by either the Government or any donor agencies, which has meant that all of the extensive Recovery & Rehabilitation work undertaken within the Coffee Industry on Tanna after the Cyclone struck, was borne solely by the Company and the work continued until resources were exhausted.

With no obvious outside support forth-coming in the immediate future and with any further prospects being very limited, the Company has recently embarked upon seeking investment from within the Private Sector and we have already entered into some preliminary discussions with various overseas entities. However, this is something that the Company is a bit reluctant to do and it will probably prove to be a long and very drawn out process which in itself is quite disappointing, as the time to act is now.


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