By Jodi Bryant

When two paramedics' paths crossed on the job, they could never have envisaged that, almost 30 years later, they'd be taking the world by storm with a popular creation formed from their shared love of good food and wine.

Whangarei's Neville Montefiore and Chris Nathan are the founders and company directors of Cocavo, an increasingly familiar name of late, after securing an estimated $30 million per annum deal with the entire Walmart retail chain – that's 4,122 stores across the United States – for their healthy cooking oil.

"Chris and I have known each other for nearly 30 years," explains Neville. "We were both paramedics working for St John Ambulance in Auckland and, although we took different career paths – with Chris pioneering the Extra Virgin Avocado Oil process - after finishing with the ambulance service, we kept in touch and, of course, our love for good food and wine never waned."

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The pair bumped into one another, having both moved to Whangarei and, around four years ago, began looking into a new project to establish a state-of-the-art coconut oil extraction plant in the South Pacific. During the planning phase of the project, Chris developed a unique blend of organic coconut and avocado oils, infused with 'on trend' ingredients, such as coriander, ginger, chili, lime, lemon zest oil and turmeric oil.

Apart from being lower in saturated fat than regular coconut oil, it has the health benefits of avocado oil, plus all the high-heat cooking qualities of both oils.

"We decided this blend of two of the world's healthiest oils was such an awesome product that it made sense for us to further develop and market this unique and healthy new cooking oil we named Cocavo and make it available to consumers who we knew were looking for a healthy alternative to the cheap and nasty refined oils on the market."

Cocavo began manufacturing its range of cooking oils in November 2016 and soon three varieties of the product were being distributed to 1,200 stores in the US.

It was while exhibiting at the San Francisco Winter Fancy Foods Show earlier this year, that the Cocavo stand was approached by Walmart.

"They loved our vibrant recyclable packaging, the uniqueness of our blend of coconut and avocado oils, the sustainability of our oils and, of course, the versatility of a cooking oil that can also be used as an ingredient."

For a small start-up company operating from Whangarei, the US market proved challenging, but nothing this forward-thinking duo with the Kiwi innovation couldn't overcome. Luckily, they had the foresight to install a fully-automated processing line from day one to help cope with the demand.

"Cocavo is well-prepared to step up to the challenges. We knew we had a great product and there would be consumer demand for it, especially knowing that consumers were starting to demand more information on what they were eating. We understood that they have been misled over many decades with regards to the supposed unhealthy consumption of saturated fats. This led to food manufacturers removing fats from their products and, in an attempt to keep the product palatable, they added sugar. This trend continued for many years and was followed by an associated global increase in obesity and diabetes. There is a fast-growing ground swell away from sugary products and a subsequent growth in the awareness and consumption of what's termed the 'Good Fats' like coconut oil, avocado oil and olive oil," explains Neville.

"Cocavo, being a blend of extra virgin coconut oil and extra virgin avocado oil, brings to the consumer the 'perfect oil' that is jam-packed with healthy fats, vitamins and plant sterols. In addition, we like to promote that Cocavo is not just a cooking oil, but also can be used as an ingredient that can be included in a wide range of cuisines, baking, smoothies etc, adding health to any meal it is used in."

Neville and Chris describe their journey as a 'rollercoaster of a ride' with the Walmart deal a game-changer for the company.

"Our senior broker in the US has never seen any product rolled out to such a large number of stores in one hit. It elevates the company into a whole new level of operations, including taking on additional staff, which is good news for Northland. We are also acutely aware of ensuring we continue to look after our loyal New Zealand customers."

Cocavo is currently available in New Zealand from many New World, Pak'nSave's and Four Squares, plus many smaller retailers across the country. Cocavo is also about to be stocked in the new Health & Wellness sections in Countdown Supermarkets throughout New Zealand.

The product is now being exported to the UK and Australia with, after presenting Cocavo at food shows in Shanghai and Hong Kong, the possibility of breaking into the Chinese market.

As well as new products in development, including an exciting garlic-infused variant, which Walmart have expressed interest in, the company have big plans ahead, which includes the project from which Cocavo derived.

Cocavo's parent company, EVCO International, has initiated the project in Fiji where the company has established its own extra virgin coconut oil production factory, due to open in May 2019. Using technology developed by Chris, its coconut oil production will be a game-changer for the industry in Fiji and its farmers, producing extra virgin coconut oil at a volume and specification not seen anywhere else in the world.

The establishment of this 'world first' plant in Fiji will have a significant positive impact on the more than 26,000 Fijian families whose sole income is from coconuts; not only creating employment in the factory and on the plantations, but also increasing family incomes through better prices being paid for coconuts and the huge volume of coconuts required by the factory to meet demand for its superior quality oil.

"For many years the coconut industry has been in decline as copra prices fell and the vegetable oil industry and other ill-informed people demonized coconut oil. Recent scientific research shows coconut oil is not the nasty oil the public has been led to believe. The upside for Cocavo is the reassurance of knowing it has a secure and reliable supply of the best quality coconut oil available to produce the Cocavo range of oils."