Seventh generation Chatham Islander, third-generation farmer, and founder of fishing firm Chatham Island Food Co, Delwyn Tuanui, has always dreamt and thought big. While most New Zealanders rightly take pride in their powers of imagination and ingenuity, the 600 hardy Kiwis that lead an even more isolated existence on those evocative, windswept islands 800km further out in the Pacific, need to harness such characteristics a whole lot more.
“We’re so lucky,” muses Delwyn, “whoever it was that decided to put these islands here, whether it was the Big Bang or part of a big plan, whatever your views, we were gifted this isolation, which makes things tough, but the people resilient. Around us we have this amazing produce, and we need to make the most of it to give ourselves the best lives we can.”
Delwyn reveals he felt an obligation to take over the family’s lamb farm, but when the GFC and economic downturn that followed forced the mass culling of their livestock due to the cost of getting the stock to market exceeding the sell price, he was forced to revaluate his future.
“That moment, in the scrub with the old man, a proud farmer, and looking out over all those dead sheep, it was pretty gruesome stuff,” says Delwyn. “I was overcome with the desire to do something about it, to take greater control of my destiny.”
It was a time of hardship throughout the islands.
And so Delwyn enrolled in a three-year marketing and business degree at the Marcus Oldham Agricultural College in Victoria, Australia, where he also not only laid the foundations for his future business, but met his future wife and business partner, Gigi.
“We had been given this great resource and, in part due to the great challenges in operating out here, it wasn’t being presented in the way it should be,” he continues. “It was important to fix this, not only for my family, but for the future of the Chathams.”
“I went over there with the idea of adding value to the islands’ food. It was my passion. As well as my background in farming, I’d done a lot of paua diving as a youngster. My mum’s brothers were all cray fishermen and my dad’s side were farmers, so it was in the blood, you know.”
The ‘Ocean to Door’ home delivery concept was born, something the pair have wanted to do since starting out, but Covid-19 was the catalyst to make it happen. Juggling three young kids and fuelled on caffeine, Gigi set about building an online platform to enable this.
“My wife has an amazing brain when it comes to developing systems,” says Delwyn. “She set up an online shop and we started delivering our fish direct to people’s homes. We’ve been blown away with the feedback we’ve been getting, and we’re so glad that others can now have that experience, while supporting Chatham Islanders directly.”
Delwyn delights in the fact that he has embarked upon such a journey, and is thankful for, and humbled by, the fact that others have helped his and Gigi’s vision come to life.
“It has altered my perception so much,” he continues. “It has elevated me to heights that I never thought I’d reach—as well as a few lows—but it is vital that we secure the value of this island for ourselves, our fisherman and our future generations. I love the fact that we’ve been able to put it all together, to show folk that just because we live 800km from anywhere, it doesn’t mean that we can’t follow our dreams to create something exceptional. We are proud of who we are, what we have, and where we come from.”
One fateful night he barbecued up some Chatham blue cod for his university buddies who were “blown away by the taste”. One lightbulb moment led to another, and soon Delwyn was delivering his local delicacy to Melbourne’s top eateries from the back of his mate’s “fair dinkum Aussie ute with bull bars and all the aerials”.
“I learnt very quickly that it was the story of the island that was getting in the door, then it was the product that was keeping the door open,” he says. “It was the perfect match.”
With rave reviews from some of Melbourne’s best chefs in places like the Royal Mail Hotel and Flower Drum in Chinatown, Delwyn developed a branch of the Chatham Island Food Co. in Sydney—but not before his wife-to-be had had a word in his ear.
“I was getting pretty cashed up for a student and getting all the rounds in for my mates down the pub,” he chuckles. “But Gigi pulled me aside and said that I need to stop all of that and get serious. She really helped me, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without her.”
Based in Melbourne 10 years ago, they were at the forefront of the ocean-to-plate movement, creating collaborations with other up-and-coming companies. Now living on the remote Chatham Islands, social media helps to bridge the isolation gap, connecting their customers with their story.
Married in 2013, the pair moved back to the Chathams where they bought a fish processing factory and later built a “mini-village” for their 15-20 staff who mostly had to be flown in.
“It got real very quickly,” Delwyn says. “My wife was seven months pregnant with our first child, and we started processing the fish at night. The first night there was 300kg of blue cod, and we thought it was pretty easy, but the next night four tonnes were dropped at the door and Gigi came up to me with tears in her eyes and asked, ‘What have we done?’”
Other obstacles to navigate included instructing the fishermen to change the way they handled their catch on board.
“You can imagine, a young fella off a sheep farm and fresh out of university trying to tell these experienced Chatham Island fishermen who had been working one way all of their lives that it could be done better another way, was challenging.”
Just as the financial crisis threw everything into disarray more than a decade ago, the coronavirus has created a new set of challenges. Chatham Island Food Co largely supplies the restaurant trade which came to a grinding halt overnight with the lockdown. In order to keep the business afloat, the couple had to think outside the box – and fast!