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Got Ulu? Summit summarized

A group of about 30 people learned about the ins and outs of ulu at the 2012 Two Samoas Ulu Summit Wednesday.

A full day’s program provided participants and observers with a wealth of relevant and interesting information about breadfruit’s role in the world and in the Samoas, in the past, the present, and the future.

The purpose of the Summit was to gather knowledge from a variety of experts so that the government could determine if it makes sense to pursue development of an ulu industry in the territory, in conjunction with Samoa. Samoa’s government and private sector are already trying to decide how to develop an ulu industry there.

What is an ulu industry? Although there are many traditional uses for ulu, and many possible modern uses for ulu, the summit was primarily concerned with milling dried ulu into breadfruit flour, which would be sold as a “gluten-free” alternative to wheat flour, or as a relatively high protein alternative to other gluten-free flours (such as rice flour or cassava flour).

What is “gluten-free?” Gluten is a component of wheat flour. If you’ve got wheat flour (which is the kind of flour that we usually refer to as “flour”), you’ve got gluten. But lots of people are finding out that their digestive problems are due to an allergic reaction to gluten and lots of people think that gluten-free diets are healthier. 

As a result, the size of the U.S. market for gluten-free products (like breadfruit flour) has reached $3 billion/year, and is expected to double to $6 billion/year within five years. By contrast, the size of the U.S. tuna market is only about $2.5 billion and is not growing.

In other words, the demand for gluten-free ingredients and products is already greater than the demand for tuna, and it is growing at a fast pace. Moreover, the sellers of canned tuna find it very difficult to raise prices without hurting sales, but the makers of gluten-free products find that people are very willing to pay high prices for healthy, nutritious gluten-free goods.

It all adds up to an opportunity. For breadfruit flour.

Say what? Breadfruit flour? You aren’t familiar with breadfruit flour? That’s because it doesn’t exist, except in small batches made by the Scientific Research Organization of Samoa (SROS). SROS has recently proven that breadfruit flour can be made (by drying breadfruit and then milling it), and that the end product has an impressive nutritional pedigree (e.g., high protein, high fiber, low fat).

So the world is hungry for more gluten-free alternatives, and breadfruit flour might be a new product that can perhaps be sold in large quantities to meet that demand.

What about the cost? The cost structure reportedly looks good. In other words, it looks like breadfruit flour can be made and packaged and sold at a price low enough to result in lots of sales and impressive profit margins.

That’s why Samoa businessman Papali’i Grant Percival is seriously investigating expanding his food processing business to include making breadfruit flour.

But, as was stressed in the Ulu Summit, there is as yet no “proof of concept.” In other words, there is as yet no proven product, no proven manufacturing process at large scale, and no sales (let alone repeat sales) of breadfruit flour.

An ulu industry would still be a very risky venture at this point, which is why it is attractive to some private sector people (who see possible great reward as well as great risk) and why the government must be involved at this stage.

This was all laid out in a series of excellent, well-prepared presentations by experts from Hawaii, Samoa, Minnesota, and American Samoa.

What wasn’t made clear is what the potential for American Samoa is, even if Samoa were to become committed to growing ulu in large scale for this new industry.

Samoa’s deputy prime minister, Fonotoe Pierre Lauofo, said, “breadfruit is the most under-utilized food crop in Samoa because of its short shelf life,” which makes it hard to export. An agriculture official from Samoa estimated that 80-90% of mature breadfruit is wasted. Fonotoe said, breadfruit’s “over abundance when in season constitutes a huge untapped resource for value-added processing,” such as milling into gluten-free flour.

Fonotoe said Samoa welcomes the opportunity to work with American Samoa to set up a research program and an industrial processing center for gluten-free breadfruit flour. He said “this is an example of the type of initiative where we can build opportunities together.”

A representative from Samoa said an initial budget to set up a breadfruit milling operation would be about $730,000, and the government there was interested in a private joint venture partner.

Former Land Grant Director Tauiliili Pemerika, one of the few members of the public at the summit, sounded a cautionary note when he recalled that a lot of successful work had been done on perfecting taro flour many years ago, but when the government had finished the research, no private sector company had picked up the ball and run with it.

American Samoa is the “gateway to the U.S. market” for breadfruit flour, said Dr. CL Cheshire, an advisor from the Pacific Business Development Center headed up by Dr. Papali'i Dr. Tusi Avegalio (who was also in attendance with several other PBDC personnel). Cheshire highlighted the excellent harbor and industrial park facilities in the territory, as well as other advantages that come from flying the US flag (e.g., easy access to US markets, federal tax credits, access to technical and financial assistance). He also emphasized the extensive experience American Samoa has with food processing for the U.S. market, due to our 60-year history with tuna canning.

Lelei Peau, acting Director of the Department of Commerce, said cooperation with Samoa would be the foundation for an American Samoa ulu industry. Governor Togiola Tulafono, who gave the keynote speech, said there is a lot of work to be done to realize the potential opportunity of a breadfruit processing industry, and at the end of the day, he humorously noted that others would have to be the ones to do it, as he will be in retirement.

The Ulu Summit was a direct outgrowth of Governor Togiola’s interest in the subject matter, which was piqued in 2004 when he read a story about an ulu plantation when flying to Maui in 2004. Togiola said that Peau and Dr. Tusi (as Avegalio is often called) had ensured that his interest stayed alive over the years, culminating in a visit to see the Ulu plantation in Hana, Maui earlier this year.

Togiola’s strong interest was evidenced by his presence and active participation in the whole of the summit, from its 8 am start to its 5 pm conclusion. In his remarks, the Governor read a Samoan solo he wrote in Ulu’s honor, and said, “for the rest of my life, Ulu is going to be the passion.”

The governor expressed his great affection for the ulu with several anecdotes, and observed that “ulu is perpetuity. Ulu feeds generations of families and villages.” Now, the governor believes, ulu might be able to help develop American Samoa’s economy in addition to feeding families and villages directly.

Local agriculturalist Larry Hirata said simply, “Ulu is manna from heaven. You don’t have to do any work and one tree provides more food than a family can eat.”

Other speakers touched on many other aspects of the breadfruit, giving the audience a great appreciation for just how wonderful of a tree it is, and can be.  A breadfruit beer is brewed in Hawaii (“Liquid Breadfruit” by Maui Brewing Company and Dogfish Head Brewery), but curiously, no samples were served on Wednesday.

The Ulu summit was a joint venture of the following agencies:

ASG Dept. of Agriculture

American Samoa Governor’s Office

ASG Dept. of Commerce

Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries and Scientific Research Organization of Samoa

Univ. of Hawaii Pacific Business Center Program