Innovator Spotlight: How Robert Oliver Aims To Inspire A Pacific Islands Food Revolution

December 22, 2017

Above: Robert Oliver at the LAUNCH Food Forum. 

The food of the Pacific Islands has always been close to Chef Robert Oliver’s heart. Born in New Zealand, Oliver moved to Fiji with his family when he was about ten years old. “The first day we were there [...] we went to the market in Suva,” he says. “It was the most amazing market, and to me, it’s one of those great food destinations. I just remember, it’s like I came alive in that moment.”

Oliver has been an advocate for traditional Pacific Islands cuisine throughout his career as a celebrity chef, author, and TV presenter. When the LAUNCH team first interviewed him for World Food Day in September 2016, Oliver had spent years exploring the role that chefs can play in linking agriculture to tourism in the Pacific Islands— chefs who serve tourists in the region, he explains, have a unique opportunity to boost regional economies. One year later, Oliver is a LAUNCH Food innovator working on a new project: Pacific Islands Food Revolution (PIFR), a health education initiative tailored to audiences in the Pacific Islands that includes a reality TV show and a multimedia campaign. LAUNCH’s Kendra Yoshinaga caught up with Oliver to ask him about how his work with PIFR could inspire a movement around traditional healthy eating in the region. (The transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

Tell me where you are in your journey. It’s been a year since our last interview— what are some highlights?

Pacific Islands Food Revolution is firmly on its way. We’ve generated tremendous enthusiasm in the Pacific region. There was a big meeting in Samoa called the Pacific Islands Leaders Forum, and I got to host a lunch with ten of the Pacific Prime Ministers. We got to screen the pilot of the show, and the feedback was unbelievable. They really understood it. The non-communicable disease (NCD) crisis in the Pacific has been so daunting, it’s almost like everyone’s been wanting that ray of hope. Instead of reiterating numbers and problems, PIFR says “Actually, we can do something about this,” in a very community-centered, grassroots kind of way.

We’ve been carrying out stakeholder consultations in Samoa and Fiji, and we’re about to do one in Vanuatu. There’s just tremendous support for this project, and enthusiasm— people saying this will lift all our initiatives, this will energize the Pacific in a way that it hasn’t been energized before. Not just around health but around food and identity— viewers can see themselves in it, engaged in it, and that’s really just incredible. It really comes from the heart.

And for readers who might not be familiar with PIFR, can you tell us what you’re doing?

PIFR is designed and conceived to address the NCD crisis in the Pacific. NCDs, non-communicable diseases, are diseases related primarily to diet, to what we eat. The Pacific has the worst NCD rates in the world. Diabetes, heart disease— it’s actually affecting everybody, because if one person is suffering, everyone’s lives are impacted. There have been lots of amazing efforts happening, but they just haven’t seemed to inspire people to act. The logic that PIFR was conceived through is creating a cultural solution to the problem.

If people are eating traditional food, food that’s indigenous to the region, we’d be much better off. Fast foods have replaced what people used to eat here. When I grew up in Fiji, we ate fish and fruits and greens and traditional foods. That’s before this tsunami of junk foods came in. So the NCD crisis is loosely aligned with the change in diet. That’s the first realization that led to PIFR’s creation.

The second one is, there’s lots of information out there, but people aren’t acting on it. So how do we create excitement and enthusiasm for that?

The other thing is, people are tired of being told what to do, and so we didn’t want to create a project that felt like an agenda. We’ve gone on the route of entertainment: television and social media are the big players in the entertainment space in the Pacific, along with some of the very traditional media like radio and print media. What we’ve designed is a consumer engagement/ social movement project, and one of the key components is a reality tv cooking show for the whole Pacific region where contestants are given challenges— you have to cook for 100 rugby players in half an hour, for example. The challenges in this show highlight interesting local initiatives. School-run programs, for example, experts in nutrition and cultural knowledge. We give contestants traditional knowledge and ask them to cook to that knowledge.

In the pilot, we had medical students as contestants, and they were talking about their futures as doctors. They were saying things like “In the future, maybe we won’t be prescribing medicine— we’ll be prescribing recipes.” It was very powerful for them. It actually felt really sad for them because they realized that they’re the ones who will carry the burden of treating NCDs. It’s going to become their responsibility.

So, the TV show is one part. We’re also designing a whole other toolkit of consumer engagement modalities. It will obviously be social media-heavy because that’s where everyone’s sitting, but the Pacific is not high-tech. Even though we want to have emerging technology, I think SMS and radio will be big players in this project. We have a lot of research to do, but we’re trying to simplify things and not make it data-heavy— make it very solution-focused, make it celebration-focused.

You mentioned the consumer engagement piece— let’s dig into that. How has your thinking shifted around consumer engagement?

How do we get everyone involved in this, across all demographics, all age groups, all sectors of society in a way that we create new narratives and offer new tools for behavior change? Consumer engagement just by itself means engaging a community. We’re still thinking it through ourselves, as well. A lot of listening has to happen.

Right now we’re going to all the people involved in wellness initiatives and challenges in the region— the World Health Organization, various ministries of health, the school programs, the United Nations Development Programme. We now need to look into who the community influencers are, and elicit their engagement. We already have a clear sense of some of the challenges and the barriers to wellness. We’ll shape our project around those challenges so that we’re presenting solutions to those specifically.

The cool thing about reality TV is you have contestants in it, and contestants are cast in certain way so that sectors of communities relate to a certain contestant: “That’s like my cousin,” or “I’m like that,” or “She reminds me of my mother.” There’s this kind of identity buy-in. So the casting of this is really important so that we cover as many relevant sectors of societies as we can. So the individual level really happens partly through the contestants and then through the access to the media— whether it’s covering it, repeating it, social media-izing it. And eventually people end up thinking “This is something we can do in our own backyard.”

How has LAUNCH played into all of this? What have you learned through the process, and what kind of connections have you made?

DFAT brought me into LAUNCH, but then LAUNCH brought me into DFAT. Just going through the process was really high value to me because I had to distill all my thinking into actionable project mode. To me, that was the big output. Also, the community of thinking that LAUNCH provided was really high value, just being able to talk to people who think globally and put these tangible projects into motion.

And on a personal note, I just feel really well supported. I’ve been battling away on this project for three years, and now I’m in a process where a lot of it is curated with me. For me, personally, once I was in the LAUNCH community, I felt that this was real.