Techie and entrepreneur Kelly-ann Bethel was one of the first people to apply to the Planting Seeds Programme.
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Activists with the eye for business
The season of bush fires has taken a toll on parts of the Maracas Valley. Ash blankets the land that borders Gillian Goddard’s property—a steep incline after the well-known Ortinola Estate and nearby horse stud farm.
Enraged, Goddard lamented the loss of animal and plant life. Now that the land has cooled, she looks at the charred soil as an opportunity for revitalisation. She looks at the ash as a way to deliver nutrients to plants, she has found the ideal spot to grow pigeon peas to block razor grass and place two rows of mango trees as a fire preventative.
As an environmentalist, Goddard has always found an alternative way to express her activism. Instead of placards and petitions as some activists are passionately wont to do, she channels her passion by getting involved in doing an activity that would counter her concerns and create positive attention that others may follow.
Finding a way to deal with bush fires is one thing, just as finding a way to create and market a product is another. During our conversation, which took place before the bush fire, she and her partner Lasse Brodnike sat at the kitchen table twirling cottonseeds she got from Tobago. She was considering planting cotton trees, an experiment in reviving an industry that thrived during T&T’s colonial era but has since dwindled to nothing.
Goddard continues to look for ways to enhance the landscape. She, along with Brodnike and their business partner Michael Parris, found a way to respond through Soular, a small organic-food-processing company that has begun to make inroads at several groceries.
“We are activists who have a business. We all feel entrepreneurship is one way to express activism,” she said. “Packaging and repackaging is not interesting. There is no creativity. So we get creative by producing the product and packaging it ourselves.”
The soul of Soular
Three elements—indigenous tradition, chemical-free material and entrepreneurship—form Soular’s foundation.
The company’s philosophy is about changing the mindset to accept locally grown and made products, to generate a sense of national confidence. While most consumers continue to hold to the belief that foreign products are better, Soular has been able to redefine the concept of buy local through the products it already has on the shelves.
They start by buying raw materials from farmers who do not use pesticides and fertilisers on their crops. Then they sun-dry the produce.
“That is the best way to preserve it, the Amerindian way,” Goddard said, though they actually use a more modern version—solar-powered dryers.
It’s a process that Paris learnt while on a sailing trip to Polynesia, where he was exposed to a procedure that is centuries-old, but has been modified to encourage increased production. Before his sojourn at sea, Paris worked with a planning company for three years. During his year-and-a-half-long travels, he saw different lifestyles, particularly indigenous ones.
“I returned with that desire to have that in Trinidad,” he said.
Also add Brodnike’s experience in organic processing, having worked at an organic ice cream factory and an organic winery in Germany. As for Goddard, she once owned an organic shop at the artists’ retreat Alice Yard on Roberts Street, Woodbrook. Instead of creating her own products then, she supported other people’s efforts by selling their goods.
Now Soular is theirs to create something new. First, it was sun-dried bananas, cut into bite-size pieces. The natural sugar makes it delectable. It can easily replace the imported dried fruit, such as cranberries and such that are used in cereals, trail mix, muffins and sweetbreads.
“We have support from the diasporas—both Trinidadians and foreigners—who are looking at eco-friendly foods. We have a growing base who are trying to change their eating lifestyles, who are questioning ethics behind the food. So we are pitching our products in that way, as an alternative,” Paris said.
They have also produced a pancake mix made from plantain flour, offering an alternative to the boxed imports. Mixed with water, the plantain-flour pancakes are lighter, tastier when topped with a syrup consisting of brown sugar, vanilla essence and water.
Soular’s other product, cacao nibs, also have that indigenous connection. The cacao nibs can be added to cereal, yogurt or smoothies, can be used to replace chocolate chips, can be used in recipes such as Mexican mole sauce or caramelized nibs and are the foundation for making chocolate.
The cocoa comes from the La Reunion Estate, between Centeno and Carapo, in east Trinidad, the only one that grows its product under organic conditions and has won international awards.
At the duty free M Store owned by soca star Machel Montano at Piarco Airport, Soular’s dark chocolate is the source for his self-named chocolate bar. At other gourmet groceries, the chocolates are branded under Soular. Both chocolates are a mixture of pure cocoa, extracted from sun-dried fruit, and sugar, minus additives, preservatives and milk.
At $45 per kilo for cocoa, the cost of local raw material may seem expensive—especially when Europe pays $21 for the same weight. To understand their payment structure means understanding the history of T&T’s cocoa industry: T&T cocoa was a highly valued product and thriving industry until Europe found a means to undervalue it, one way was opting for inexpensive and lower-quality cocoa from other countries.
“We are still able to get a profit, we are able to be sustainable,” Goddard said. “We could produce more if we wanted to, but we are not for sale. We make decisions in the ideals we hold dearly.”
Among these ideals is collaboration, having a good network of farmers and entrepreneurs like themselves.
“We should be compromising instead of prostituting,” she said. “Trinidadians were encouraged to be elitist: rank was important. We have a history that taught us not to trust.”
Thus for someone to copy their concept would not be upsetting but an expression of flattery. That way, they hope, there will be an increase in the number of people who wish to follow this method of activism.
Besides, Goddard, Brodnike and Paris are always working on other ideas.
“We are innovators. We can make something else.”
Soular is expanding into a new format in which Soular will retain the production of the sundried bananas, cacao nibs and brewing cacao and the other products. The cocoa powder, mataburro pancake mix and the dark chocolate - will be moved to the purview of Sun Eaters Organics - an eight-year-old company founded by Goddard.
Sun Eaters Organics will be expanding in the near future to add spirulina - a blue green algae, fresh organic produce and other health oriented products.