In her search for “the best” virgin coconut oil, the founder and managing director, Elizabeth Johnston learnt of the far-flung Fijian island and was determined to source coconut oil from there.
“It’s something we do to support the island, support the story of who we are, and engage with the locals. Vatea is not just a cosmetics company, it’s a lifestyle company and belief system,” said Johnston.
Rotuma: The organic island
Famous for its coconut trees, Rotuma has been 100% organic for around eight to nine years but is still in the process of getting certified by Australian Certified Organic.
The certification is important to Rotuma as a means to grow economically and independently while preserving the beauty and resources of the island.
“[Rotuma] is realising they need to put the extra effort in to be certified to add value to their products, and they need to do it now because it creates opportunities for the youth, as a lot of the young people are leaving the island,” said Johnston.
The road to certification is costly and can be inconvenient. Johnston explained that there is only one flight that goes in and out of Rotuma a week and no hotels, let alone wireless Internet.
As such, government support and funding are crucial for the island. “They have huge potential but they just need funding to maximise it,” said Johnston.
Currently, the island is in the process of enhancing their logistics and machinery so they can increase the output of their oils.
Johnston believes there’s only one other Fiji-based company that sources coconut oil from Rotuma, making her products very exclusive.
However, she admits that it can be difficult sourcing ingredients from Rotuma. For one, it is more expensive compared to sourcing from other parts of the world. “For them to produce such high quality really takes a lot of time, it can be very labour intensive,” Johnston explained.
This slow production also means delivery delays. This year, Johnston had to suspend production because of a terrible storm in the South Pacific, which delayed the barge that goes into Rotuma once a month.
While it can be problematic, Johnston never questions her decision to work with the island as she is helping the island on their journey to becoming the first ever certified organic island.
To avoid future delays, Johnston ensures to do some forward planning. “I have to buy in advance now, but I guess that’s the cost of working with people you have pleasure working with.”
Currently, Vatea is distributed in Australia, Korea and Singapore. Johnston revealed that the company is close to expanding into Japan. She believes Asia is an important market for natural and organic products and is eager to take Vatea further into Asia.
“I believe China and other Asian countries, will definitely be the leaders in natural and organics and environmental growth. They are going through right now what Europe and the US have been through. In 1920s in London you could barely see because of pollution and they had to rectify their practices. This demand will come from the people and when they step back they will take us to the next step forward.”
While Johnston is very keen on taking her brand into China, she is also cautious. “We want to do it the right way, especially with animal-testing. That really goes against the ethos of Vatea.”
However, she believes her products, which rely on the goodness of natural oils, will resonate with Chinese consumers. “They are opening up to the benefit of natural products and there is a preference for goods and products manufacturer outside of China, preferably if they are organic because of the belief that product have to go through strict regulations in terms of manufacturing and production.”
Currently, Johnston is building a Mandarin website with the help of her Mandarin-speaking partners. Additionally, she is looking for someone based in China who can help her manage the distribution, who shares the brand’s beliefs as well.
“Vatea is all about the South Pacific, and the ethos is about being connected to the earth,” she said. “Natural is all about bringing things back to nature. It’s simplifying the formulations, the blends, so you are using as many natural products as possible. Even the emulsifying agents and preservatives are natural… so the product will cause the least disturbance as possible to the environment.”