How a local cacao farmer conquered N.Z. market

By Mathias Huckert ,

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Fa’aalualuo Floris Niu presenting her company’s products in New Zealand.

Fa’aalualuo Floris Niu presenting her company’s products in New Zealand.

Some people say that farmers are simple people. Some say they just enjoy living off what is given to them by the land. “Farming is in my blood”, is what Fa’aalualuo Floris Niu says. And by knowing more about the story of her life, probably no one might have a doubt about this statement. It is a story about giving it all and losing a lot, but also one that shows that with strength, faith and the will to achieve something, anything can be possible.

Ms Sunshine Farms, Floris Niu’s own company, has teamed up with “She Universe”, a “well- known high-end chocolate brand in NZ”, as she describes it. The reason for this latest cooperation of her business with the company from New Zealand is simple: the Samoan Koko farmer feels ready to gain a foothold in the market of New Zealand.

“My company has consulted to She Universe since 2013, but before that I knew the company founders since 2010. Because of this relationship, we have a very unique way of doing business, based on trust, mutual respect and a love for what we each bring to the table”, said Floris Niu.

But before Ms Sunshine Farms was able to achieve a success like this cooperation, the company and especially Floris as its founder had to overcome difficulties which would challenge them in many ways. The single parent of one daughter, who was born in the village of Tuana’i as the youngest of 15 children, early had to battle her way through the world of business. 

“I was was educated in Samoa, New Zealand, Costa Rica and Australia. I have lived and worked in three continents and several industries but mostly in Education, Recruitment & Human Resources, Marketing and I did a brief stint in Journalism and Social Development”, Floris explained to Samoa Observer.

Having achieved educational success with a degree in English Literature and Language Acquisition, a Post-grad degree in Editing & Professional Writing and a qualification in Translation, one might not assume that Floris would end up becoming prosperous with a cocoa farming business in her home country. But what finally led to the foundation of Ms Sunshine Farms, was in fact one of the most remarkable things that can happen in life: the birth of a child.

“Ever since I became a sole parent, my aim in life was to create a career or job that would work around my daughter. She is beautiful, and is the love and light of my life. She’s the number one inspiration for everything I do in life”, the successful businesswoman told about her 11-year old daughter.

Together with discipline and the ability to work hard and long enough for it, this inspiration would become the earliest stage of Floris Niu’s company: “The corporate world isn’t always kind to single parents, so it was a struggle to balance the two. I started Ms Sunshine Services Ltd in New Zealand in 2008. Back then, it began as a consulting business where I would pick up short contracts for the duration of 6 to 12 months and negotiate my hours with clients.”

This first start of her own business became an overcharging one for Floris. “[…] soon it would get out of hand and I’d be back in the same position as any fulltime employee; too much work and not enough family time!”. Finding herself “bouncing from contract to contract, [with] 50 to 60 hour weeks”, and having ignored her body’s warning signals for too long, Floris was forced to pull the plug by herself without having any control over it. “I became seriously ill. I was in hospital for 3 weeks and had to undergo major surgery for severe peritonitis with a burst appendix”.

To make things even worse, Floris Niu’s fate was far from pushing her back to the bright side of life: “After barely surviving, I went through a cancer scare that required me to have 4 more invasive procedures over the following 18 months. Not long after that, I was in a near-fatal motor-vehicle accident and suffered a brain injury from which I am still recovering”.

It was her faith that carried Floris through these hard times in her earlier life, only making her stronger by vanquishing all those obstacles in her way. “It is a miracle of God that I am still here […] today. But my journey over the past three years has been a wake-up call, and the catalyst behind a complete change of career and lifestyle. Mostly, I needed to rest my brain. I strongly believe that God and the universe have great plans for me, it just took a few knock-outs for me to get here. And I still have a very long way to go yet”.

So far she has been successful, as the achievements of her company tell: “In late 2013, while still living in New Zealand, an old business associate and good friend from the boutique chocolate company “She Universe” in Christchurch contacted me about sourcing cacao beans from Samoa. I told them that we had trees and plenty of land. They wanted to get samples of our beans so I flew to Samoa to talk to my eldest brother Henry, who had just moved back to Samoa in 2012”.

This first contact led to a profitable collaboration for both companies – and the final extension of Floris’ business to what it is today: Ms Sunshine Farms. Being the sole owner of the company and employing four to six village farmers in Samoa, Floris Niu is indeed not above to pitch in and do the hard work on the fields. “When I am on the farm, I am a farmer...I do everything that other village farmers do, clearing, planting, pruning and harvesting the cacao”.

Despite this rather physical part of Floris Niu’s job as Ms Sunshine Farms’ owner, there still was the business side she had to fulfil: “I fly to NZ to market and sell my dream to companies that are aligned with my vision of promoting clean and healthy products from farm to the table”.

While further health problems started to interrupt this two-minded way of leading her business, Floris had learnt from her past, explaining that she had to continue, “on a part-time basis”, as she pictured it.

Nonetheless, this change did not harm her company’s success and especially the partnership with “She Universe”, which gained even more pace in 2014 by replacing Fijian cocoa beans with Niu’s Samoan beans, to continue their range of Chocolate Rolled Cacao Beans – making them a top seller to this day in New Zealand. 

The range of products offered by Ms Sunshine Farms, traded under the label of “The Koko Samoa Collection”, is still being extended with the introduction of new innovations like “the Samoan Cacao Elixir, hot chocolate in flakes. It is retailed in cafes in Auckland and is available on the shelf for consumers to create at home”, told Floris Niu.

In defiance of this variety offered by the company, the newest demands of the consumers are still satisfied, especially with the responsibility of manufacturing the products as healthy and sustainable as possible. “Every chocolate made by SHE is gluten-free and refined-sugar-free. Most chocolates are vegan friendly and we have replaced sugar with stevia. With a high percentage of our Pacific people suffering from diabetes, it is my hope that they will take advantage of the benefits of pure cacao and chocolate made with beans that are treated with the utmost respect when it reaches the chocolate kitchen”.

Having built up her business from scratch, Ms Sunshine Farms has also teamed up with other Samoan based businesses to provide a chance for them to find their own place in the international market, just like Floris Niu’s company did in the past.

“Our relationships were formed organically during the process of networking and exporting a new product from Samoa. I think it’s beautiful that we can help each other out, without expecting too much of the other, as we are all in the same “boat” so to speak”.

Niu assisted the recent launch of ELife’s Samoa Wild Turmeric Juice into New Zealand, owned by Etu and Elena Tusitala, and Lufilufi Rasmussen’s Misiluki Skincare range recently launched in Sydney, as well as Samoa Coconut Cluster’s raw, virgin coconut oil, which is soon coming to Auckland, as Floris Niu was able to tell.

As for her own business philosophy, Floris builds her success in Samoa on a simple principle – the rule of sharing and patience. “These are great times for Samoa and its abundance of natural food resources. But we have to do it in the spirit of sharing resources, connections and love for our country no matter what happens out there politically. It’s easy if you work in harmony with nature and use the tools, knowledge and intuition it provides you with. That is [for instance] patience. People are always looking for an easy-fix and instant results. Nature is not a man. It has a different timeline. It’s taken forever for me to learn this, but I realise that once we poison something, it takes so long to recover. We only have so much land and we don’t want to turn the Samoan cacao industry into a Ghana or Ivory Coast nightmare”.

To prevent the country from such a nightmare, Floris Niu still has to do a lot of persuading in Samoa: “The most difficult thing for me as a new farmer in my village is convincing my neighbours and family of farmers not to spray chemicals. Only a few can afford to do this but with the sudden rise in cacao production, some farmers are desperate and resort to these measures to take care of the weeds. 

Some are skeptical that I can turn a messy, aging, village plot into a thriving, sustainable, pure strain cacao plantation, organically; but all I know is that when I’m on the land, something extraordinary happens. I am transported into the time of my ancestors when there was no poison and no argument...you just put your head down and work”.

With her success over the struggles she had to face in both, her own personal life and with her business, Fa’aalualuo Floris Niu has proven that Samoa’s economical place in the world can be a relevant one.

 “Hard work, perseverance and love are key ingredients for success”, she concluded and after knowing what Floris Niu has been through during her life, one definitely has a hard time disagreeing with her.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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