How culinary storytelling is set to spark a Pacific Islands food revolution

March 21, 2017
Rob Oliver and Elizabeth Powell of the PIFR, public relations expert Lenora Qereqeretabua, Allan Soutaris of SecondMuse and Tash Tan of S1T2 on a research trip in Fiji, March 2017.

By LAUNCH Editorial Team

Chef Robert Oliver and development strategist Elizabeth Powell joined forces around 18 months ago to investigate ways to put food at the heart of discussions to solve the health crisis, an endemic which is very close to both of their hearts. 

Based in Fiji, Pacific Islands Food Revolution (PIFR) aims to instigate sustainable change in attitudes and behaviours towards food in the region, where up to 75% of all deaths are attributed to non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. 

“I grew up in Fiji, and when I returned eight years ago after almost 30 years away it was such an emotional experience. Never before had I heard of so many people being ill. Never had I spent so much time in hospitals, or been to so many funerals. It affected me on such a personal level”, Elizabeth says. “What’s worse, the losses and the grief I was facing was being lived a thousand times over in communities across the region. I found it unbelievable that the public weren’t questioning it. That’s when Robert and I started looking into the causes behind the problem, and the PIFR project entered its infancy.” 

Robert and Elizabeth’s combined skills and experience make them ideally placed to lead PIFR. Elizabeth, originally from Fiji, has served as Secretary for Public Enterprises, Civil Aviation, Communications and Tourism in the Fijian Government, brings years of experience in mobilising change in the region and provides vital insights into Pacific Island culture. 

Robert, on the other hand, was born in New Zealand but raised in Fiji, and has a strong affinity with Pacific Island cuisine. Robert shot to fame in the region following the international recognition of his cookery book Me’a Kai: the food and flavours of the South Pacific, receiving the ‘Best Cookbook in the World’ at the internationally acclaimed Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2010, and has presented a number of regional cookery shows broadcast across the region. Despite having very different backgrounds, Elizabeth and Robert are united by their sheer optimism and unfaltering dedication to the region they care so passionately about.

“I strongly believe this is a revolution that needs to come from the people of the Pacific Islands,” Elizabeth says. “In any country, food is inextricably linked with its people’s culture and sense of identity. In the Pacific Islands, we’re up against generations of colonial marketing which has consistently devalued our cuisine, overlooked its nutritional value and disregarded its flavours. Instead, we’ve seen an influx of imported foods, from high-sugar fizzy drinks to high-fat instant noodles, which has had a debilitating impact on the health of Pacific Islanders.” 

“There’s so much more to food than what’s served up on a plate,” Robert adds. “Cuisine has a matrix of connections to identity, economics, tourism, health, and the environment, which is one of the reasons we’ve put it at the heart of our campaign. Food is a way of nourishing your body, but it’s also a celebration of culture. Our challenge is to reignite pride in Pacific Island cuisine and create effective and long-lasting change.”

“In my experience, television is a great way to connect with people in the Pacific Islands. I’ve recently worked on a show called Real Pasifik, in which I worked with chefs in different countries in the Pacific Islands, with a specific focus on tourism,” Robert says. “Around 70% of the food served in restaurants and tourist resorts across the Pacific Islands is imported, so it was a great hook to begin exploring the colonial hangover. I’d seen the real-life impact of the show, with people replicating what they saw on the show in their own homes, and so we’re aiming to achieve similar results with the new show we’re working on as part of PIFR. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s going to feature local personalities, delicious food and a good dose of competition!” 

Tash Tan, of creative technology agency S1T2, is taking a like-minded approach to changing behaviors around food and nutrition in the Pacific. As the first innovator selected as part of the LAUNCH Legends challenge*, Tash is using emerging technologies, such as virtual reality and 360° video, to inspire communities to reconnect with their Pacific culinary traditions. An immersive storyteller with a wealth of experience in the field, he understands the importance of finding a balance between substance and style.

“As storytellers in emerging technology we have a duty of care to create a culturally authentic experience that respects the tradition and history of the Pacific Islands. In the same manner that food is considered a driver of culture, technology can be used to empower cultural learning,” Tash says.

Having already begun sharing ideas and learnings from one another, Robert, Elizabeth and Tash will continue to draw on their collective knowledge and expertise in the pursuit of a healthier, prouder Pacific. Their collaboration is indicative of the holistic approach required in order to change public behaviour and halt the growth of non-communicable diseases in the region. 

“Nutritional education is an incredibly important part of the PIFR program. The ideas and knowledge discussed in the television show will be repeated and reinforced through social media, custom gamification apps, collateral written in local languages, and initiatives from the Government, NGOs and other agencies. We’ll be working with a range of individuals and organisations on the ground, including Tash, to prioritise conversations around nutritional education in the places people regularly visit, from schools and workplaces to churches and temples,” Elizabeth adds. 

“What we are working towards is a whole-society approach, an intervention that changes the way we Pacific Islanders see our food and value ourselves.”

Keep up to date with news from all of our LAUNCH Food innovators here.

This is the first in a series of blogs on LAUNCH Food innovators that will be shared in the coming months. 

*LAUNCH Legends is a program supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.