Conservation Enterprise Case Study: Wild Eggplant Tea

I’ve been wanting to develop a Non-Timber Forest Product (NTFP) for some time. NTFPs create incentives for communities to avoid cutting down the forest as they generate an income from natural community forests. Working with HEPA gave me the opportunity to develop one as an interesting side-project – Trá Cà Rừng or Wild Eggplant Tea.

HEPA is an NGO that manages 500 ha of restored rainforest in central Vietnam on the Laos border. Their primary activity is training ethnic minorities and rural farmers on sustainable land use, based on their Eco-Farming philosophy. You can read more about it here. I’ve also written about how I developed a “knowlunteering” strategy for HEPA here. As well as this service offering, they also wanted to trial niche physical products that embodied their approach to sustainable land use.

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The challenge for them was that the farmers they trained were not obtaining a price premium for their pesticide-free, sustainable products. They wanted goods that would demonstrate that Eco-Farming products could command a premium price in the marketplace and increase awareness of their Eco-Farming philosophy. Generating income was a secondary consideration, although they recognised the potential of sales of a range of products to diversify their sources of income.

We shortlisted all the products they could potentially produce, and reviewed them according to the product selection criteria I’ve gone into in more detail here – scale, sustainability, impact and capacity. We discussed a range of options, including essential oils, teas, alcohol and kombucha. (They brewed this amazing kombucha using wild forest honey. Rainforest kombucha – I could definitely sell that! Kombucha is the fastest growing drinks segment in the world after all). Essential oils were high value, but we couldn’t get the still that makes the oils to operate effectively, which left the teas.

The Wild Eggplant tea was a strong option with a good back story. It’s actually something that had been mentioned by several traditional healers in HEPA’s ethnobotany database as helping liver and kidney function. Despite Vietnamese drinking a wide range of herbal teas, including medicinal herbal teas, this was one product that was not currently available for sale. It was very sustainable, growing quickly, and production could be scaled up through enrichment planting of more wild eggplant bushes in the forest understory. Rather than extensive market research, we produced a small batch of the tea to test the market – the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach I have blogged about here.

It was a good learning experience – for example, how to get barcode numbers assigned to items for sale, and what needs to be on the packaging for this type of product. It sparked a lot of internal debate at the organisation on whether a physical product strategy was preferable to the service-led main strategy, and how much the packaging should be consumer-centric as compared to explaining the production philosophy. For me, I wanted to take things further, establishing the eco-farming standard as a branded standard (alongside the proliferation of product standards in “organic” shops in Vietnam) as well as going further towards a place-based branding strategy for HEPA for a range of NTFP and sustainably farmed teas and products.

But I was getting ahead of myself. The challenge as an adviser is always to walk with your partner organisation, and not to go somewhere people can’t follow. We’ve got further to walk, but in the meantime, we’ve got some tasty, healthy, sustainable tea to drink on the way.

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