To celebrate the International Women Day on March 8th, let’s discover some bright women from Vanuatu who are taking part in the building of the modern society.
Founder of Lapita, a successful catering food business promoting local ingredients, Votausi Mackenzie-Reur tells us more about her history and the challenges of driving a business in Vanuatu.
Can you tell us more about your personal history which drives you to your current position?
I studied in Australia and have a degree in education specializing as a Home Economics Teacher in Secondary Schools. I taught cookery in secondary schools years ago and from that I started my business providing catering service in Port Vila with special emphasis on the use of local foods. Then I have worked as a National Nutritionist for the Ministry of Health and during that time studied and gained my Master degree in Community Nutrition at the University of Queensland. But in 1993 many public servants went on strike because we were not happy with our salaries. The government answered with a massive sack among its employees, and unfortunately I was one of them.
This event affected me a lot, because I realized that I was relying too much on someone else, who could overnight put my family without incomes. This is how the idea of setting up my own business starts to grow.
Then I work for three years with the Australian High Commission from 1993 to 1995. During that period I put in a tender to provide catering service to the University of the South Pacific, Emalus Campus in Port Vila. In 1996 I won a 5 years contract for the University of South Pacific (USP) catering. With this experience, I became very passionate to use local ingredients and it had a big success.
That is why in 1999 I launched a small café in town to offer this kind of local food for everyone. This was called the Lapita Café and I had a lot of customers requiring opening for dinner. Unfortunately I couldn’t do so because I had my children to look after, as they were still young and going to school.
The café was not doing well so I closed the Café to only providing out catering services and focus on food processing arm of the business. This is sourcing local food products from the suppliers in the rural areas, value adding them and packaging them to sell to consumers or as ingredients for food service providers such as restaurants, hotels and resorts and the airline.
Do you think that, as a woman, it has been more challenging to achieve what you did?
When I launched the business, I was young and I am sure that many people, including men and women, were not taking me seriously. I had to stand strong, to show that business is business, and to get respect in order to make a deal.
At that time, the support of my husband was very useful. He helped me to get more confidence on the decision I had to take, because running a business can be very scary as you never know what you are going to sell, what customers are looking for…So you need to spend a lot of time and money on research and development. For example, every product in Lapita has to go through a 12 months process before it is ready to be launched and shelved in supermarkets.
What do you think about the women situation in Vanuatu society?
I think Vanuatu women have come up so much economically speaking. I am really happy to see that so many women are going to business, because they are hardworking and they just need a small support to push them forward.
I think the institutional support can help a lot. I am the former chairwoman of Vanwoods, the microfinance organization, and I have seen so many women starting new businesses thanks to these small loans, generating incomes, pay their school fees…
I know that other institutions like the Cooperative Department, the Vanuatu Council of Women or the Chamber of Commerce are also very helpful to empower the women in Vanuatu.
Moreover, I think that in most of the training or workshop provided, the gender approach has been implemented to make sure that women are included in every part of the society.
Do you feel that you have more responsibility and duty to promote and defend women rights since you have become successful in your area of work?
Well I think I haven’t change that much since I started my business. I support a lot of rural farmers, including women, through Lapita suppliers. And I really rely on them to provide good quality products and in return I make sure that the price of raw products I purchased from them is fair.
Personnally, I always advocate that men and women should always work together as partners and no one should be above the other. The reason why my businesses are so successful is because of the great partnership I have with my husband.
According to you what is the key success factor of your business?
Passion, believing in myself and the great support from my husband and business partner. I love what I do and believe in the products I create. To see people enjoy my product gives me the drive to continue to grow and spread the economic benefit to all sectors of the community.
What is the biggest achievement you are proud of?
(take a short time to think) Well, I think that the achievement I am most proud of is a part from Lapita products my husband and I invested in other two companies which provide to the Vanuatu people two essentials products to improve their livelihood particularly in the rural areas.
For more infos:
Facebook page: Lapita Café
Online Shopping: https://www.natural-organic-living.com/products/organic-vanuatu-brand/lapita-cafe/
This article was originally published in the Vanuatu French Embassy website