Delayed by Covid, a long-awaited celebration of Tongan business smarts and
diplomatic relations with New Zealand will take place at a swanky dinner this
weekend. Yvonne Van Dongen profiles three New Zealand-Tongan businesses that have succeeded in making the best of both worlds and, since 2020, have risen to the Covid
Saia Latu and Trow Group
If Saia Latu ever allows himself a moment of proud reflection, he marvels that a
Tongan boy with no education has helped change the way New Zealand does
business. "Make that a Tongan boy surrounded by good people," he adds. "It's a
He is referring to his latest business, Trow Group, begun five years ago after two
family tragedies within weeks of each other.
Saia had had successful businesses before but these losses told him he had strayed too far from family and faith. So he returned to Tonga to reconnect with his roots. He returned often after that, finding that reconnecting became part of the healing process.
While there he also helped repair the local church and school ravaged by cyclones, observing that the cost of building materials shipped to Tonga had been marked up by 100 to 200 per cent. At the same time, he knew Kiwi companies threw away hundreds of tonnes of building material because it's cheaper to hire a few men and machines to bulldoze a building than 10 men to pull it apart. Construction and demolition waste make up to half of all waste sent to landfill in NZ. Each new home generates about four tonnes of waste.
Saia, who had worked in civil infrastructure in Auckland, knew he couldn't keep funding repairs himself so he decided to create a business specialising in deconstruction, salvage and resource recovery. His mate, Kiwi league legend Joe Vagana, joined him and together they have created one of the largest deconstruction companies in New Zealand. The company finds ways to reuse or recycle material from building sites for schools, social housing, community centres and churches here and in the Pacific. Now more people are employed to deconstruct a building site than had previously been the case.
Trow Group works with Auckland Council's waste-minimisation team and other
government departments and has contributed to the model becoming more circular in their building/deconstruction practices.
The company also aims to support small to medium Māori and Pasifika businesses. Covid-19 has helped, not hindered, this process. Because of the Government's interventions during lockdown, Trow Group was able to keep contracting out work to these businesses.
"Covid has been a game-changer," he says. "It shone a light on how these businesses had not been given the same opportunities. Now non-price attributes such as community and environmental sustainability are taken into account. This opens doors for them."
Getting to this point hasn't been easy and, at times, has required selling assets to fund the business, taking no income and riding the economic ups and downs.
Saia is the first to admit there are easier ways to make money.
But thanks to Trow Group, he now feels good about his work and can talk about his losses and how they changed his path. "Tongans are tough eh? We don't talk easily about our feelings. Also it's great knowing we are able to do social good and still do good business."
How did he do it? Saia laughs. "I cried before I prayed. And then I kept going. That's all, I just kept going."
Sela Latu and Heilala Vanilla
Sela Latu is old enough to remember what life was like before Heilala Vanilla was established in Tonga. Money was tight and the family of nine (extended family of 35) relied on money sent by relatives living in the United States and Australia.
"I knew from an early age that there was no income. Often no money for food or school fees."
But a chance meeting between retired New Zealand dairy farmer John Ross and her grandfather, Laulillie Latu, would change all that. What began as a firm friendship ultimately led to the creation of a successful business that now supports many extended family members and others.
In 2001 Ross and his Rotary colleagues helped her family rebuild on Vava'u after Cyclone Waka. At the same time, he committed to funding the children's education. Ross quickly realised the people needed a steady income. With the offer of leasehold land from Laulillie Latu, he planted vanilla, hoping to establish the crop that had once flourished in Tonga. It was then that her family knew "our families would be together forever," says Sela.
But vanilla, a native of Mexico, is not an easy crop to grow, requiring hand pollination of flowers that bloom once a year for one day only. Heilala Vanilla has been rewarded for this patience and dedication with accolades from top chefs all over the world including our own Peter Gordon. Heilala is the only vanilla company in the world directly involved in planting, growing, harvesting, processing, and marketing vanilla.
Sela began working at Heilala Vanilla while she was still at high school. Twelve years later and now married with three children, she is the manager of the business in Tonga responsible for buying and drying vanilla as well as communication with the growers.
At 79, John Ross continues to work with Heilala Vanilla alongside his son-in-law, technical director Garth Boggiss, and his accountant daughter, Jennifer Boggiss, co-founder and chief executive.
Usually John and Jennifer visit Tonga several times a year but as a result of Covid, Sela has managed with video calls alone. Added to the stress of flying solo for the first time was the knowledge that her husband was stuck in New Zealand. He had been picking fruit in Nelson when the borders closed. It would be a year before the couple were reunited.
Sela has also started growing vanilla on her own plot of land. Nowadays she feels confident her family will have enough money to pay the bills and finance her children's education. In total Heilala Vanilla supports more than 300 small farmers and employs up to 15 people over the harvest and drying period.
But last year Covid-19 gave the company a jolt. Until then, its fresh, quality vanilla had been sought after by high-end American chefs. Covid put an end to these exports. Fortunately, the enforced stay at home with lockdowns saw the rise of home baking and increased demand for vanilla. As the pandemic took hold, Heilala created its own vanilla hand sanitiser, supplying three hospitals on Tonga's main islands. The sanitiser was also sold in NZ and Australia.
Coincidentally, a five-year-long research and development project concluded over
lockdown, resulting in the launch of BioBlume Facial Oil featuring VanillaActive2,
a patent-pending anti-ageing ingredient.
Covid also forced Sela to upskill and taught her she is more capable than she imagined. Nevertheless, she says she looks forward to the Ross family's return, because "they are one of our family."
Emeline and Alipate Mafile'o and Tupu'anga Coffee
Emeline Mafile'o knows first-hand the rejuvenating power of business with heart. By 2001, at just 25 years old, the New Zealand-born Tongan woman had completed three degrees and started her first company to provide mentoring and support for young Pasifika.
Twenty years on, Affirming Works (AW) has helped thousands of people with everything from literacy and numeracy, leadership and the transition from school to work. The trained social worker has also written social policy for the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) and been a member of MSD's Pacific Advisory Group for seven years.
From 2010 on she also set up five community cafes (in Mangere, Otahuhu, Greenlane and two in Otara) with her Tongan-born husband, Alipate Mafile'o, a self-taught chef and former manager at Eve's Pantry in Epsom.
The couple have homes in both Tonga and New Zealand and, until Covid kept them in NZ,
they have always shuttled between the two countries. On one trip, in 2010, they bought an ailing coffee business, renaming it Tupu'anga (to grow from your roots) Coffee.
Tupu'anga coffee is both a fair trade and social enterprise responsible for growing, roasting and packaging their coffee. Coffee is sold locally in Tonga but also to AW, to help fund its social services.
The business pays a living wage to staff in both Tonga and New Zealand, believing that people can be their own enabler. The same staff employed when they started the business are still there today. As well as the five cafes in New Zealand, another cafe was established in Tonga. In total, Tupu'anga Coffee employs 30 staff here and 20 in Tonga. In this way, the coffee business is able to improve the lives of the workers while profits are channelled into AW programmes in New Zealand.
For three years it was largely based in Tonga while Alipate built up the business and Emeline worked as a consultant. The AW team continued their community outreach but there came a time when Emeline felt exhausted. She says she didn't realise it at the time but her husband did. He suggested they return to New Zealand for a while where he would work at the cafe alongside AW and Emeline could continue her social service work.
Working together on this social enterprise was just the tonic she needed. It is also an example of what she calls faith in action - faith in one another and the community as well as their spiritual faith. "I don't think we could have kept going without our faith."
While the cafes closed during lockdown, AW was deemed an essential service.
During this time the couple set up a food hub in South Auckland feeding 900 families, a service that has continued post-lockdown. Just as with Tupu'anga Coffee, the couple took this opportunity to help train and mentor those in need.
Meanwhile, their team in Tonga rose to the occasion, expanding their farming
enterprise to include growing vegetables for Tupu'anga's latest spinoff, vegetable
chips. Twenty-five farmers are now involved in this co-operative enterprise.
"It's amazing that happened under Covid, with Alipate talking to them online every day."
Two of their cafes closed permanently as a result of lockdown but that hasn't stopped the couple planning to open another cafe, this time in Mt Wellington, in May. Resilience is part of the Matefile'os DNA. "That's because the aim of our work is not just to make a profit but to build resilience through faith," says Emeline.