A creative business model that is inspiring Pacific Islanders to return to local cuisine to benefit their health, economy and climate

February 25, 2021

A creative business model that is inspiring Pacific Islanders to return to local cuisine to benefit their health, economy and climate.

“The story of the food is the story of the people.” This is the belief that has inspired celebrity chef Robert Oliver to create the reality cooking show and community project ‘The Pacific Island Food Revolution’.

We have absolutely loved working with Robert – a true difference maker in helping to address a health crisis, along with economic and climate impact through food and culture.

The Pacific Island Food Revolution uses the power of reality TV, radio, and social media to shift people’s eating behaviour. Through its celebration of local cuisine in inspires the pacific island communities to return to eating fresh, local, indigenous foods as an answer to good health.

The reality cooking show is in its second season and has been broadcasted on television across the Pacific Islands as well as Australia and New Zealand.

TDi was recommended by Pacific Trade Invest Australia when Robert and his team realised that it was time to move beyond a donor funded pilot to become a sustainable enterprise designed for the future. In Robert’s words, ‘we had to grow up right? But what does that look like?’. Exactly the question TDi loves to explore.

“They really listened to us. They didn’t have a prescribed idea of what we should look like. They brought a lot of experience to the process that I’ve never had – around social enterprise knowledge and development. They also had a clear plan and design, to pull out of us, and get down to what was important and then present it back to us.”

 

Together we helped Robert and the Pacific Island Food Revolution (PIFR) to articulate their future vision, clarify their value proposition and future partners, as well as identify their future entity structure, and how to transition to an independent entity. You can read more about this work in our case study

A critical part of the way we work here at TDi is to explore the origin story and acknowledge the interwoven nature of the individual and the business. We’re thankful to Robert for sharing some of his journey with us.

Robert was 11 when his family moved to Fiji. There was a wharf strike so there was no imported food. Robert shares ‘My mum had to learn how to cook local food from day one. I clearly remember my very first day in Suva, going to the market and just thinking ‘Oh, this is what life is actually like!’, the marketplace was screaming with culture, and food and gossip.’. A far cry from the New Zealand supermarkets where everything was in plastic and seemed sterile, grey and white.

There’s a generational legacy that Robert inherited from his father’s visionary approach to development, his grandmother’s community work before that, along with his childhood experiences of Pacific Island food and culture that has shaped where he is today. But it took personal heartache, achieving the heights of culinary success in New York, a farm-to-table restaurant in the Caribbean before Robert returned to the South Pacific and founded the Pacific Island Food Revolution. A wonderful blend of Robert’s career as a chef with his passion for community.

“The chef’s life is very creative, highly commercial. But the restaurant world I was in was not specifically connected to communities. I remember responding personally very strongly to seeing homeless people for the first time.” As a result, Robert established a project feeding thousands of homeless people along with a kitchen program with African immigrants with AIDS, all the while ‘paying the bills’ working as a chef in top New York restaurants.

“I had to find a way to blend my two worlds.”

And that’s exactly what Robert has done. Developing restaurants themed around local cuisine helped Robert to realise the value of local food systems and the benefits to small island economies when the money stays with local farmers. As Robert puts it, “that’s when my community, my life, and my creative life kind of came together.”

Robert discovered while writing his South Pacific cookbooks that food and culture can help to address climate issues, economic development and promote health and wellbeing.

“When I grew up in Fiji, there was no processed food and no sugary drinks. And no one had diabetes either. And then fast forward 30 years – NCDs (Non-Communicable Diseases) are going through the roof, people are eating a lot of instant noodles, white rice, sugary drinks, so there’s been a big shift. It was clear that this shift could also be reversed because it’s happened within just one generation.”

 

When Robert came up with the idea of a reality cooking show, the Fiji Health Ministry’s National Advisor NCDs, Dr Tukana exclaimed “finally, we’ve got a Pacific solution”. The medical approach to healthy eating wasn’t working. They needed a cultural approach.

“I think a lot of people understood that the holistic nature of local cuisine would go a long way towards fixing the health crisis. But I don’t think there’d been anything like our approach that would kind of socialise that and bring it to the grassroots. I mean, our viewership goes from Presidents to the humblest people in the villages. So, it’s a whole of community engagement that we’ve managed to create.”

 

The Pacific Island Food Revolution has aired its second season and is continuing to create a cultural correction in bringing local cuisine back to the mainstream. It’s inspiring tourism to showcase Pacific Island foods and bringing economic independence. Robert’s dream is to see people in the Pacific Islands enjoying good health and celebrating their unique cultural identity. Their team plans to continue to facilitate and support grassroots local food initiatives across the Pacific Islands.

We’ve loved being part of the journey and tuning in to the show which is currently airing on SBS on Demand here in Australia.

To find out more and to watch the TV series in your region, visit https://www.pacificislandfoodrevolution.com/

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