Pandemic led to opportunities for vanilla farmer
The coronavirus pandemic threatened to be the ‘spanner in the works’ for vanilla farmer Shelley Burich, but the tough operating environment opened the door to an unrealised opportunity – a global online business that is now doing wonders for her business.
Ms Burich, who made her formal exit as C.E.O. of the Samoa Cancer Society in June last year, told the Samoa Observer that she then wanted to build on her 13-year-old vanilla business but the challenges brought on by the pandemic including shut borders threatened the viability of her business.
“COVID-19 has been the ‘spanner in the works’ so to speak, where borders have been closed, international flights decreased, work and employment stagnate and with a mortgage and loan still to pay as a family and business household,” she said in an emailed response to this newspaper.
“I had to quickly think of new ideas and ways to diversify to not only keep my vanilla business afloat but to also figure out how to feed my family and pay the bills that weren’t going to go away.
“But I am the type of person who will take a challenge head on and turn it into a positive.”
And the challenges that became synonymous with the pandemic – state of emergency restrictions and border closures – compelled her to consider re–strategising her marketing portfolio to a global audience while potentially generating an income for the business and her family.
“I did two (or maybe three) important things that have enabled me to take Vaoala Vanilla to a whole different level of business,” she added.
First she enrolled in an indigenous women’s e-commerce online program called HIWA through RISE2015 in June last year, which she said gave her confidence as well as the capacity to build her own online e-commerce shop using the global Shopify platform: www.vaoalavanilla.com
And she was not the only Pacific Islands woman on the platform, as she says her Pasifika HIWA sisterhood came from Aotearoa, Fiji and Vanuatu, though she was the sole Samoan.
“This programme has changed my life in so many positive ways and was the main influencer in how I managed Vaoala Vanilla from a small ‘cottage’ type business to a global online indigenous business,” she said.
And Ms Burich is now helping and encouraging other Samoan women to understand the program and explore the opportunities that come with the online platform.
“I am now a HIWA Ambassador for Samoa – helping to promote and encourage other Samoan women to understand the programme – and am also a Shopify Partner in Samoa whereby I can provide services for Samoan women entrepreneurs who want to learn more about the Shopify ecommerce fully-hosted platform and help to build their online stores/websites.
“I learned how to monetize my experience, knowledge and skills using an online platform.”
And using the HIWA and Shopify platforms, she has also self-taught herself to further harness the potential of social media platforms, in order to get her company Vaoala Vanilla beyond the shores of Samoa and into the world.
“Since June 2020 I have improved all the SM platforms for Vaoala Vanilla (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn) by 800 per cent,” she said.
“Using Social Media, Live Feeds, Video tutorials etc has expanded our global reach to New Zealand, Australia, USA, Canada, Romania, Philippines, Indonesia, Ireland and we continue to grow.”
Her company’s Facebook page has also grown exponentially and has an audience reach of over 24,000 people and video views of 14,000.
“My Vaoala Vanilla FB Live Feeds are part of the social media presence and audience reach – our first Live video feed we did in February reached over 24,000 people with over 14,000 views of our video!
“People want to see what you are doing, they enjoy authentic and real conversations and will support your business because of this, particularly our Samoan community who live overseas – they enjoy learning about a small Samoan Vanilla business and want to follow our journey.”
Reaching out to the local community through the running of awareness and education on the potential of the vanilla crop is also her other passion, as she encourages the domestic market to buy local authentic vanilla grown in Samoa.
“I have created a large local customer base for our vanilla products and now provide vanilla training workshops and vanilla cuttings for new growers, with the aim of building the vanilla industry for Samoa,” she said.
“I also expanded the range of vanilla products to vanilla beans, vanilla extract, vanilla syrup and for the local market, the popular Starfruit and Vanilla Jam (available only at the Saturday markets).”
It appears as though a lot has happened in less than a year and the challenges that came with the pandemic didn’t become obstacles for her business.
Ms Burich said her company Vaoala Vanilla has now created its own market brand and international customer base and she is excited that it has now generated a high demand for their premium products.
“It is exciting to know that we have a huge demand for our premium and quality products which is why I am now offering vanilla training workshops to help build the vanilla supply in Samoa.
“Like most agriculture crops that are exported – the supply capacity is always the problem to sustain the export market.
“Vaoala Vanilla is working towards addressing the supply capacity problem and has some exciting future projects lined up.”
This Friday there will be another Facebook live stream hosted by her company, which will discuss the vanilla bean, its proceeding methods and what it looks like after being processed.
“I like to interact with our viewers and always ask for questions and answer them as we go along,” she said.
“Each month, we will think of different things to talk about or demonstrate and like I said earlier, these are all new SM facets for me, but I do believe I am winning and making a lot of positive progress.”