Living Koko calls for agriculture revolution

By Tina Mata'afa-Tufele 28 March 2021, 10:00AM

Samoans rarely talk about the concept of ‘food sovereignty’ but it’s something that Living Koko owners Phoebe Preuss and Glen Reiss believe can revolutionise agriculture. 

Simply put, it’s a food revolution that demands freedom and justice for indigenous growers who have long been exploited by global food corporations collecting massive profits for their produce. Living Koko wants to change that dynamic.

In an interview with the Samoa Observer, Ms. Preuss explains that food sovereignty goes beyond food security or that everyone must have the certainty of having enough to eat each day.

“Food sovereignty not only looks at where the food comes from and how it is processed but also is about ensuring that control of food production and distribution appropriately considers those who produce, distribute and consume the food. Food Sovereignty goes beyond food security,” she said.

“It looks at the full food system and is trying to address issues with the existing corporate food regime that has dominated global food systems for over the last five decades.  

“This domination has contributed to an uneven distribution of wealth, climate change issues, polluted and even depleted clean waterways while affecting many local communities' crop diversity. It also doesn’t appear that this corporatised food regime is able to address the international hunger problem.”

Living Koko, based in Melbourne, Australia, sources ingredients from Samoa and Papua New Guinea.

When it comes to cacao and chocolate production Ms. Preuss notes that Africa is one of the places in the world where growers have been getting the short end of the stick for decades.

“Within the cacao and chocolate production world there is a growing understanding of how indigenous growers, particularly in Africa have been impacted by large corporation's exports of their cacao,” she said. 

“These are some of the poorest places in the world and these unfair and unjust food systems have impacted the health and well-being of these communities; in large there has been documentation on these farmers and communities being marginalised and in many circumstances exploited.

“The Living Koko approach has as a cornerstone of its ethos, the intention to support and empower the Pacific Island growers and suppliers by creating markets that otherwise may not be available for their produce, in this case, cacao.  

“This intention is to ensure those growers of cacao, being at the very start of the supply chain, are truly considered.

“We are a no waste manufacturing space and use all the components of the beans.  Under our brand Koko Smooth (a skincare range partnership with [Le Spa] we create a delicious cacao body scrub (using coconut oil from Women in Business and Fetau oil) and also a hydrating chocolate face mask with face exfoliate.

“In our chocolate range has a focus of connecting ingredients from the Pacific Islands: we create Bean to Bar Chocolates 70 percent and 80 percent retail ready and in bulk for chocolatiers. We also make Koko Duo, 70 percent Chocolate with nibs and Koko Moka 70 percent chocolate with Tongan coffee. We also create a limited edition [Wik'd Koko] Bar which is 70 percent chocolate with Tahitian Rum.”

In their cacao tea range Living Koko currently has three blends: Original Cacao Husk, Cacao + Ginger + GreenTea and Cacao + Coconut + Vanilla.  

They use organic ginger from a domestic village farm in Nofoalii called Vai Tulu and Vanilla from P.N.G. and Vaoala Vanilla plantation in Samoa.

“In our bulk product range we also roast Cacao Nibs and Roasted Beans - working with chocolate makers to find their specific roasting profiles,” said Ms. Preuss.

COVID-19 created a very unstable environment for their company but they survived 2020 she said.

“We learnt that we needed to diversify our income so that selling retail ready products wasn’t enough to make it through 2020.  We had spent many years trying to understand the needs of Samoa and how and who our business could work with to support those needs that 2020 gave us an opportunity to also understand the needs of our community in Australia,” Ms. Preuss said.

“This helped us communicate better with everyone.  We have always been intentional and mindful in the way we operate and COVID gave us another opportunity to understand how to walk gently in this space and support in other ways.”

Because more people were working at home and stores were closed, website sales increased but wholesale purchases decreased because shops and restaurants were closed.

On a happy note, sales of raw cacao beans increased as Samoan families used their time in lockdown to teach the young ones how to roast cacao to make koko Samoa.

“COVID-19 has been a very unstable time for us.  During lockdown here in Australia our website sales (direct to consumer) increased as people were working from home, stores were closed and many wanted to support local businesses,” said Ms. Preuss. 

“Though as those sales increased our wholesale (direct to retailer) sales decreased dramatically as all retail stores and cafes were closed,” said Ms. Preuss.  

“We are feeling blessed that we were able to continue to operate during the lockdowns and that we survived 2020, but as we move into 2021 there is definitely another shift in purchasing patterns and a new ‘norm’  that we are finding difficult to navigate.

“During [the COVID-19 pandemic] we made a conscious effort to focus on understanding our customers better and what their needs were.  Chocolate and cacao products are very grounding nutritious foods (eaten in moderation) and during lockdowns for many people focusing on their physical and mental health became a priority. 

"I guess that was the one thing we could try and control during such an uncertain time. 

“Sales of quantities of raw beans to Samoan families living in Australia increased as a number of grandparents and parents took the opportunity, whilst in lockdown, to teach younger family members how to make koko Samoa – which was exciting for all.”

Ms. Preuss believes it would benefit Samoa greatly to move away from imported canned and processed foods.

“[W]ith Climate change impacting the food security of many indigenous communities, which includes our Pacifc Islands, with rising sea levels we believe an emphasis needs to be made on locally grown, culturally appropriate and sustainable food availability,”  Ms. Preuss said.

“In Samoa, traditional regenerative land cultivation practices maintain a healthy ecosystem supporting nutritional fruit, vegetables, fish and meats for healthy communities.

“It would benefit Samoa greatly to move away from imported, processed and canned goods which has led to a wide-ranging of health problems in the Pacific. 

“A way to confront these health problems is through reclaiming local cuisine, education for all farmers about regenerative practises (chemical-free spaces), getting creative with the seasonal traditional foods and renewing its popularity.  

“Samoa has an opportunity to improve health and unique opportunity to improve cultural heritage through food.”

Living Koko products can be found online and their skincare products in a variety of spas in Melbourne.

Their products are also on sale in Australia, Japan, Taiwan and the United States of America.

In Samoa, their products can be purchased at Duty Free Samoa, Farmer Joe, Krush and Pacific Jewel.

“As we are currently residing in Australia and landlocked with COVID-19 travel restrictions this means being denied seeing family or enjoying local esi, bananas, and mango,” Ms. Preuss said. 

“When we are unable to have our home grown fruits and vegetables we are grateful for the cacao we can bring over and recognise that these regenerative practises is another reason why our chocolate tastes so good.”

By Tina Mata'afa-Tufele 28 March 2021, 10:00AM
Samoa Observer

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