How Banaban Virgin Coconut Oil Started
NATURE PACIFIC was founded in Australia in 2004 as a joint venture to market Virgin Coconut Oil being made by Ken's adopted Fijian brother and local villages back in Fiji. At the time Ken and Stacey were already involved in the natural health industry in Australia so marketing the family’s virgin coconut oil seemed a natural progression. However, many of their Australian business colleagues thought they were totally misguided in basing a business on just one product – virgin coconut oil.
Ken and Stacey, however, had very different ideas and believed that virgin coconut oil was just the beginning. What many did not realise was that behind the scenes there were other motives and passions driving them to use the simple coconut to carry a message and story to a much broader audience.
Their story begins back in 1900 on a small isolated Pacific island known as Ocean Island with the discovery of a strange looking rock that turned out to be one of the purest forms of phosphate ever discovered. This unearthing would see the beginning of a new industry – super phosphate and Australia’s development as a rich farming nation.
But this phosphate discovery would have dire consequences for the 451 indigenous inhabitants known as the Banaban. One Banaban elder called Kamaria placed his mark on complex contracts with no understanding that he and his fellow Banaban elders were signing their Island’s phosphate away for the next 999 years for just 50 pounds per annum.
Banaban elders who placed their marks 'X' on mining contract . Ken Sigrah's ancestor 'Kamaria' in the dark coat. Circa 1901
Copy of the original contract that Banaban elders signed with no understanding of English or reading or writing.
While this was happening, a team of Australians who had been working in the struggling guano industry on various islands off North Queensland’s coast were being rallied to take over the plant and equipment to get the new phosphate mining industry up and running.
One of these men, John Williams, would never foresee the events that would unfold over the next 30 years, with four generations of the family working and living on the island amongst the embattled Banaban inhabitants, like Kamaria and the future generations of his Banaban family who were in a battle to save their island as more and more of their precious land was being shipped away to farms back in Australia and New Zealand.
While this epic struggle raged for the next 80 years, it was not until 1991 that Stacey and Ken would finally meet; two very different people from entirely different backgrounds. It was during this meeting that they both realised their ancestors had shared an amazing journey. Ken’s Banaban family was struggling under the oppression of the mining company, the intervention of the British government and the forcible removal of the surviving Banabans by Japanese forces during World War II. The Banabans were now impoverished and living far away from their decimated homeland on Rabi – an isolated island in the far north eastern region of Fiji.
Meanwhile, Stacey’s journey had been a very different one, with three generations of her family involved in the actual destruction of Banaba through phosphate mining. She had been raised listening to family members retelling amazing tales of pioneering life living on a remote island for 30 years. Compared with the Banabans, however, their lives were one of privilege.
Ella Williams - Stacey King's grandmother and three generations of the family spent 30 years on Banaba (Ocean Island) 1901-1931.
Stacey King with her mother and late Aunty meeting Banaban women on her visit to Rabi, Fiji in 1992.
It was not until 1990 and the discovery of an old tin containing hundreds of black and white photos from the early Ocean Island days that the reality of what they had spoken of finally came to life. It was this breakthrough that also changed Stacey’s life forever. She decided to write a book about her family’s life, encouraged by her mother to finally tell the truth of what had happened to the Banabans. It was during this process and subsequent research that Stacey began to admire and fall in love with the courage and strength of the Banaban people. Through so much adversity, the Banabans had held onto their culture through a simple but ideal belief that ‘good would always win over evil’. She also fell in love with their rich cultural and spiritual beliefs that had helped them survive even as they teetered on the brink of extinction.
So it was in 1991 that Stacey embarked on a journey to Rabi in Fiji to meet with the Banabans for the very first time and return copies of their family photos that documented special cultural events, places and villages that had all been destroyed over the years through mining. It was during this visit that Banaban elders asked her to help them and she knew in the moment that she could not turn her back and walk away; it was her responsibility to ensure the Banabans would not remain ‘the forgotten people of the Pacific’.
Stacey went on to establish the Banaban Heritage Society, and over the years worked on many aid projects. During subsequent visits and meetings with Banaban elders, they asked if she could help them tell their and the truth behind their cultural identity. It was at this time that she also met Ken who was the spokesman representing four of the major clans on the island.
They shared a passion to seek justice for the Banaban people and to one day see the rehabilitation of the homeland left destroyed by the mining. They held the belief that their lives and destiny had been intertwined for a reason: so they could try and right the wrongs of the past. This new alliance saw them recognised within the Banaban community as their international lobbyists under the banner of Abara Banaba (‘Banaba our homeland’), taking and promoting the Banaban cause on a world stage. Stacey and Ken were so committed to the cause that they funded the campaign on their own, travelling to overseas conferences to spread the word of the Banabans.
Ken Sigrah and Stacey King discussing Banaban history on Rabi, Fiji 1996
Ken Sigrah and Stacey King leading a Banaban delegation to ISISA International Conference Xiamen Island, Taiwan 2004
It is this story that saw the beginning of Nature Pacific and Fiji grown virgin coconut oil; the catalyst to not only promote island-made traditional products and inject much need income back into an impoverished community, but also the opportunity to see the brand carry the Banaban name and story to a much broader audience.
From their very humble beginnings back in 2004 working out of their small garage with the assistance of their two daughters, Nature Pacific started by selling small bottles of scented body oils sold on Ebay and online. They soon found themselves sending parcels of virgin coconut oil all and other coconut products over the world.
Looking ahead, one of the important next steps for Nature Pacific is the introduction of a Banaban Training Scheme; a three year scholarship programme that will train eight Banabans from Fiji in the commercialization of coconut products. Stacey and Ken believe the future development of trade can only be achieved by educating the Banaban and Fijian communities about all the possibilities that are available to them when they harvest and develop a natural resource and commodity like the coconut.
Today Nature Pacific has diversified into a multi-faceted company with overseas distributors in New Zealand, Hong Kong, Germany, Korea and United States and with an extensive product range and many new developments in the pipeline; from ‘Food for Medicine’ scientific research with University of Southern Queensland, to being the first Australian company to have their virgin coconut oil listed by the Therapeutic Goods Authority (TGA) as a listed medicine, to the recent launch of an exciting patented virgin coconut oil soluble powder – innovation and development is never ending.