Kiwi vanilla beans brand aims to raise $100K by end of the week to support its workers in Tonga

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Kiwi vanilla beans brand aims to raise $100K by end of the week to support its workers in Tonga

A premium Kiwi vanilla beans company is aiming to raise $100,000 by the end of the week to support its workers who have been affected by the volcanic eruption in Tonga.

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Heilala Vanilla chief executive Jennifer Boggiss said it had a few core staff members and more than 300 farmers working throughout the kingdom and they needed help.

She said she had no direct contact with her team from Tonga after the underwater Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai volcano erupted on Saturday afternoon, disrupting all forms of communications.

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The Bay of Plenty-based brand produces a range of vanilla products, including vanilla beans, vanilla extract, vanilla paste, vanilla sugar, vanilla syrup, and ground vanilla powder. The products are used for home baking, by chefs, and by gourmet food manufacturers around the world.

Boggiss said it was “the big surreal thing” not being able to communicate with her team there.

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She said they had gotten snippets of information from the people who were using the satellite phones but nothing specific about the team and the community of vanilla growers.

Kiwi vanilla beans brand aims to raise $100K by end of the week to support its workers in Tonga

Heilala smallholder farmers on the island of 'Eua with company founders John Ross and Jennifer Boggiss. Photo / Supplied

On Monday the Herald reported the undersea eruption over the weekend caused a break in the cable that connects Tonga to the outside world – and that it will likely take around two weeks or longer to repair.

In the meantime, the dust cloud from the volcano means that even satellite phone and internet connections are intermittent.

The eruption sent ash, steam and gas up to 20km into the air and the boom was heard in New Zealand and picked up as far away as the UK and Italy.

“Our vanilla plantations are above sea level, but we are deeply concerned for the wellbeing of our family, friends and colleagues on the islands of Vava’u and ‘Eua, and all across the Kingdom,” Boggiss said.

There has now been a confirmed death and reports of missing people, along with damage to vital infrastructure, homes, businesses, churches and schools.

Wide destruction on the Ha’apai Islands has been confirmed and toxic volcanic ash has blanketed the capital of Nukuʻalofa, contaminating water and posing a major threat to health.

The harvest and vanilla drying season runs from May to September each year there is no damage to the crops, but it was too soon to tell the extent of the damage on the farm land, she said.

“At this time there are small beans developing on the plants – we are awaiting how the impact of saltwater and ash will affect the plants and the impact on the next harvest.

“There is a lot we don’t know. [but] we do know is that the people of Tonga will need our help – today, tomorrow, and in the foreseeable future. To get things started, Heilala Vanilla has donated $25,000 to the Heilala Vanilla Foundation to assist with critical needs, which will include food and water security, and other supplies.

Kiwi vanilla beans brand aims to raise $100K by end of the week to support its workers in Tonga

Sofaia Latu, (L-R) Jennifer Boggiss and Sela Latu in the vines on Heilala's Vava'u vanilla plantation. Photo / Supplied

“We are just trying to stay positive and to pull together as much support as we can so as soon as we know what’s needed we can flick into action.

“The uncertainty is very tough,” Boggiss said.

Heilala’s roots are in disaster response, and the company has been working closely with their Tongan community since Cyclone Waka 20 years ago, in 2002.

In the coming days, the company will be liaising with various agencies and partners on the ground in Tonga to provide assistance where most needed.

“As we receive the latest information we will formulate and implement a response plan which will draw on the support of the Heilala Vanilla community across the world,” Boggiss said.

Kiwi vanilla beans brand aims to raise $100K by end of the week to support its workers in Tonga

Members of the Heilala team on a Vava'u vanilla plantation. Photo / Supplied

Heilala Vanilla has set up a donation page to assist with the relief efforts. Every cent of the funds donated goes directly to response efforts. The company will cover all administrative and associated costs required for the foundation to carry out its work.

People wishing to support the Heilala Vanilla Foundation in helping the victims of the natural disaster can donate here.

The partnership between Heilala Vanilla and the people of Vava’u started as an aid project helping to rebuild after a cyclone in 2002 by the company’s founder John Ross.

In 2013 the brand also launched the Heilala Vanilla Foundation as a registered charity to build on its already strong ties in Tonga.

Heilala was established on the principles of fair trade and to support livelihoods – the people of Tonga are an integral part of Heilala’s business.

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