From luxury lotions to tasty local dishes: Tonga’s mozuku seaweed producer reinvents his company to face the challenges of COVID-19

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, cruise ship traffic in the Pacific halted. Access to luxury markets disappeared. Small local businesses were severely affected. By developing different products and new markets, in the Kingdom of Tonga, in Oceania – the region least affected health-wise by COVID-19 to date – a small family business is successfully pivoting from making luxury lotions from seaweed to creating tasty local dishes with the same seaweed.

The challenges of COVID-19 pandemic

In 2019, the South Pacific Mozuku (SPM) company, with support from SPC’s New Zealand government-funded “Sustainable Pacific Aquaculture Development Project” (PacAqua), developed a line of luxury cosmetics and lotions whose key ingredient is the seaweed “mozuku”(Cladosiphon sp.) which grows in Tongan waters. Before the COVID-19 crisis, the Kingdom of Tonga was regularly visited by luxury cruise liners like Queen Elizabeth II that delivered up to 5000 visitors to Tonga in a single day. Nowthe number of visitors has dropped to zero.  With no visitors arriving, SPM faces a new reality in which their intended luxury market for seaweed lotions has evaporated.

“In Tonga, there have been no confirmed cases [of COVID-19], but the government decided early on to close its borders because of the country’s insularity, that is a natural protection from the introduction of the virus,” said Dr Paula Vivili, Director of the Pacific Community (SPC) Health Division and a Tongan National.

The head of SPM is forty-year old Masa Kawagushi who inherited the enterprise which was founded by Masa’s father in 1998. Masa’s dream has always been for this family business to prosper.

“My dad ran the company until 2007 when business died due to the global recession. In 2015, I came back to Tonga to start the enterprise back up and, slowly, we have been growing our customer base, not only in Japan, but in other markets such as the USA. We are currently prospecting in the Chinese market.”

Shifting into a new niche market

Many entrepreneurial businesses have pivoted to meet new needs for goods or services born out of the coronavirus crisis. SPM initially developed fresh seaweed packs and started to sell them in two large supermarkets and through a local distributor.

However, entering the domestic market has its own challenges, and SPM found that sales were slow in the retail market, due to a lack of familiarity with the mozuku seaweed products which were not traditionally consumed by Tongans.  SPM needed to innovate to convince Tongans about the tasty and health-giving properties of mozuku seaweed, which is known by Tongans as limu tanga’u.

“COVID-19 has pretty much decimated the tourist market,” said Masa, who is of Tongan and Japanese descent.  “In Japan, I know that mozuku is considered valuable as an edible seaweed.  It is very nutritious and is reputed to have immune boosting properties.  Our best hope now is to pivot away from lotions and find out whether we can launch mozuku locally as Tonga’s own edible ‘super-seaweed’.”

By linking up with the Tonga Youth Employment Entrepreneurship (TYEE), which provides culinary training, food packs were developed to increase the visibility of mozuku products and make it appealing to Tongan consumers. These food packs were then featured by TYEE in a major fund-raising event for their organisation. They organised a mozuku tasting and cocktail event, facilitated by The TOP Restaurant and Lounge, a well-known eatery in Nuku’alofa, whose chef has created dishes using the limu tanga’u product as their main feature.  TYEE has also set up a successful local competition to create recipes using mozuku seaweed.

Lusia Latu-Jones from TYEE stated that, “It is a privilege to use these quality seaweed products from SPM in our dishes. We made an attempt to mix the limu tanga’u with cherry tomatoes, onions and coconut cream in our meals. I also added a twist of fresh lemon juice to the soy sauce flavour. We served it as mini entrée packs to go with the main meals. So tasty!”

Mindful of mozuku’s reputation in Japan for its strong nutritional and health properties, SPM teamed up with Vaiola Hospital to incorporate the seaweed into their Friday lunch menus. “The feedback we got from the hospital is that people love the seaweed, but they just didn’t know it existed!” said Masa.  “This is what we heard from patients, even some doctors and nurses.”

Vaiola Hospital’s Chief Nutritionist Esiteli Pasikala told us “I served the mozuku in Tongan style with 45 doctors and nurses during our Friday Doctor’s lunch hour. Some other workers who we invited to test the new dish, and they all liked it. They said it was delicious. They asked me how to find it and I directed them to the supermarket as I saw it was being sold there.” 

The way forward

The Pacific Community (SPC) is currently amending the existing grant agreement with SPM to facilitate the project’s shift to the domestic market.

Masa’s dream is to make Tongan mozuku a global brand and his short-term goal is to increase awareness of mozuku seaweed in Tonga itself.

“It is great to see nutrition and food security coming together to deliver food system solutions during the pandemic. It is particularly encouraging to see this private sector enterprise solution evolving with a really integrated response from within Tonga and the support that SPC can provide” says Neville Smith, Director of the SPC Fisheries, Aquaculture and marine Ecosystems Division.

Thanks to the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade funding, the PacAqua project is currently supporting  15 enterprises, comprising 14 private sector enterprises and one farmers’ association spread across eight countries (Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Federated Stages of Micronesia, Republic of Marshall Islands, and Tonga) and two territories (French Polynesia and New Caledonia). The project also supports six farmer clusters in Fiji and Papua New Guinea. It aims to reach at least 19 enterprises by 2021.

The benefits of mozuku seaweed

Mozuku seaweed is highly sought-after for its nutritional properties. It is rich in fucoidan, a substance which has been widely researched for its potential health benefits/immune-boosting properties.

The growth of the seaweed aquaculture industry is good for the economy and good for the ocean. The process of growing seaweed is environmentally friendly. Seaweed farms also create safe and healthy nursery grounds for young fish and crustaceans that can later be harvested commercially or improve wild population levels.

Republished from an article that was written by the SPC (Pacific Community)

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