Beautiful benefits: Natural beauty the Pacific way

In Pacific Island countries, entrepreneurs are working together with small-scale farmers and local communities to develop world-class natural beauty products for sale in the regional tourist sector as well as for export to international markets.

Island Rose Dream employs 10–15 people to produce coconut oil for body oils, soaps and scrubs © Island Rose Dream

Pacific women have been using coconut and other natural produce as moisturisers for centuries. Traditionally, coconuts have been used for food and cooking products as well as for hand-made oils highly valued for their restorative properties. Now the same traditional-based processes — for coconuts and for other produce such as sea grapes (a type of seaweed) — are creating luxurious soaps, scrubs, oils and lotions for national and international markets. From the village to the factory: business successes are growing.

Essence of Fiji, established in 1998 by beauty therapist and pioneer of the Fiji beauty and spa industry, Debra Sadranu, uses marine and plant extracts in its range of spa therapies. Sadranu’s late husband was born in the Yasawa village of Tamasau and, through him, she met rural women seeking a steady income stream to support their families. Sadranu partnered with the Market Development Facility (MDF) in Fiji, an Australian Government-supported agency that provides funding to train and set up village enterprises. Launched in 2015, the company’s latest premium skin care range uses sea grapes (nama) which is a type of seaweed found in the blue lagoons of Fiji’s Yasawa Islands. The marine product has high mineral and anti-oxidant levels and is used as the base for a range of gels, lotions, creams and scrubs. “The product extracts are not processed at all. The villagers harvest and send the organic nama to us,” explains Sadranu. The sea grapes are transported from the Yasawa Islands by small fishing boats and the company is now establishing nama farms to ensure that the seaweed is managed sustainably.

In Samoa, another successful village-level business supplies organic virgin coconut oil to international beauty firm, The Body Shop. In 2007, the company approached Women in Business Development Incorporated (WIBDI), an NGO working to improve the livelihoods of small farmers, with a view to sourcing coconut oil from Samoa. WIBDI assists women farmers to create a cash income without leaving the land and, by 2016, 200 Samoan families were supplying The Body Shop with 32 t of extra virgin coconut oil annually for use in more than 30 The Body Shop products. “We focus on smallholder farmers, but we also need sufficient volume, so we work with semi-commercial farmers as well,” says WIBDI’s associate director Alberta Vitale.

Strengthening capacity for bigger businesses

WIBDI has five processing sites, the farms are organically certified and every bit of the coconut is used, including the shells, which are made into charcoal. Local families have developed skills ranging from extracting cold-compressed coconut oil to developing micro-business structures with minimal set up costs. Now small farmers can pay school fees and contribute to families and communities, rather than relying on money sent by family working overseas. WIBDI covers training and financial transactions with The Body Shop and keeps the premium paid for the oil to fund other coconut oil ventures, whilst Earth Oil — a business-to-business supplier of ingredients to the cosmetics industry — provides support in logistics and testing. The project has created new markets for farmers, increased farm incomes and reduced reliance on foreign remittances, which are 25% of the country’s GDP.

For WIBDI, as for many other organisations and companies working in the natural beauty sector, training is key. To help build capacity, the Pacific Islands Private Sector Organisation (PIPSO) is working with national private sector organisation members, who have networks of growers, producers and businesses. PIPSO assists members to attend regional and international training, trade workshops, ICT seminars and business forums to foster trade and competitiveness. Financial training including basics such as book-keeping, cash flow forecasting, business goals as well as training for more advanced strategic planning and capital expenditure decisions. Whilst beauty products are a relatively new sector for PIPSO support, in 2016 PIPSO supported four beauty entrepreneurs to take part in the Pacific Business Forum in New Caledonia.

PIPSO has also provided funding to Essence of Fiji to train women with disabilities to make soap and other beauty products. Sadranu currently employs around 130 people, including students, working in product manufacturing, training, spa operations, administration and management. “We predominantly employ women, with my executive team being trained from within our company,” she says. The company sponsors training for around 30 rural women including those with disabilities.

Adding value for niche markets

Essence of Fiji products are manufactured at the head office in Nadi, which also houses a training school for local and international beauty and spa therapy students. Sea grape products are available at Sadranu’s factory outlet shop, along with products from other small local businesses. The nama products are also sold in Fiji’s hotel spas and resorts, and as part of Fiji Airways’ duty-free range. To help boost production and quality of raw materials, MDF has also provided training to local suppliers. Sadranu has also been helped by MDF to reach new buyers with a better website and videos, and the company has recently appointed distributors for their nama products in Australia, the Czech Republic and New Zealand.

Obtaining organic certification is key to reaching new markets. Regional body POETCom has an advocacy role, working with organic farmers and national and UN bodies such FAO to improve organic farming practices. Sadranu, along with Rosie Akauola of Island Rose Dream, are currently pursuing certification for organic, and for animal testing-free products.

Island Rose Dream was established in May 2014 by Tongan businesswoman Rosie Akauola. The company now employs 10–15 villagers, mostly women, to produce coconut oil for body oils, soaps and scrubs. “I wanted to use Tonga’s natural ingredients, such as coconut oil, botanical and herbal curatives that are beneficial for the skin,” emphasises Akauola. Akauola buys coconuts from several regular suppliers, which are delivered to Lapaha village where the oils are hand-made. “I believe there’s more value when products are handcrafted,” she states. The oil is then infused with herbs, such as red ginger and ylang ylang, packed into 10 l containers and taken to the warehouse for packaging, labelling and shipment for sale in Australia and Tonga.

The lucrative wedding market for tourists and overseas outlets has also been targeted by the Tongan company, which packages a special miniature range of products complete with personal cards for wedding guests. “My aim was to tap into the Australian market, so I thoroughly researched product requirements and we are hoping to get certified by Fairtrade Australia soon,” explains Akauola. She wants to expand into stores in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and the US. “Attending international expos and networking with the right people will hopefully make this happen,” she says.

Wendy Levy