Welcome to our interview series where we speak with purpose-driven business owners and ecopreneurs from around the globe. Every few weeks, we’ll dive into their journeys, learn about their wins and challenges, and the resources they couldn’t do without.
Prepare to be inspired and learn something new!
Today’s guest is Phoebe Preuss from Living Koko.
Please tell us a little bit about who you are, your background and what did you do before starting your own business?
My family come from Samoa and have worked with cacao for generations.
I am a Community Cultural Development Practitioner and cultural Performing Artist, I Co Direct a Polynesian Dance School here in Melbourne and have spent the last 15years activating global indigenous arts festivals and arts productions for young people, emerging and established artists. There was a time I spent more time under the water than above it. As a scuba diving instructor I was able to travel and work in Africa, South East Asia and the Pacific and still to this day I feel more at peace 10 meters underwater then at the surface. My connection with the ocean feeds into my deeply spiritual cultural relationship with our environment and makes me want to protect her fiercely.
What inspired you to create a purpose driven company and how did you come up with the business idea?
Living Koko is an extension of myself and my culture – I guess you can say it’s all part of this life’s work. Activating a space that supports communities, doesn’t harm our environment and ensures there is a shared value approach that creates positive outcomes.
Impact investing is something Pasifika peoples in diaspora have done for generations. Supporting our families, communities and projects back home in the islands with fundraising events and sending remittances home.
There are very few job opportunities in Samoa, so we (Glen Reiss co-founder) and I came up with Living Koko. Its purpose was to support village economies in the Pacific, support food sovereignty in the Pacific and offer an opportunity for the world to enjoy Samoan cacao.
As I mentioned , Cacao has always been connected to my family. My grandfather Laulu Sesole John Stanley was the high chief of our village and district and he also created his own strand of cacao called Lafi7. By blended the strands that were in Samoa at the time to create a more resilient cacao. I grew up hearing stories about Papa and when seeing my first Lafi7 tree felt an instant connection and through this journey have been given the opportunity to understand the kincentric ecologies and deeper connection with our environment. I wanted to continue my grandfathers legacy of sharing Samoan Cacao with the world and sharing our Pasifika people’s beautiful way of connecting with nature.
In your experience, what are the main challenges of starting and running a green business?
Finding time and knowing what to spend time on…
We were both working other jobs and spending evenings, lunch breaks, train rides trying to start up our business. When trying to start a green business in 2015 we needed more time to find the right suppliers that understood our “green sustainable” ethos and what we wanted to achieve. “You don’t know what you don’t know”, so in many instances we were guided by others’ knowledge and understanding of our business. We learnt very quickly that our communication and boundaries needly to be very clear and to keep asking the ‘small/silly’ questions as there are many things people assumed we already knew, which resulted in lost time and errors in money spent.
What is your business mission/purpose and why?
At Living Koko we are grounded in tradition and our mission is to bring you the purest form of cacao from our villages to yours.
The Living Koko approach has as a cornerstone of its ethos, the intention to support and empower the Pacific Island growers and suppliers by creating markets that otherwise may not be available for their produce. This intention is to ensure those growers of cacao, being at the very start of the supply chain, are truly considered.
We believe in food sovereignty. – Indigenous peoples have the right to be healthy and culturally appropriate and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. Their in depth knowledge of the climate system should be respected and acknowledged.
What makes your business unique?
We advocate for food sovereignty, removing the power from the marketing/retail end and ensuring there is a shared value approach. We resist the transactional ways of doing business and know that real change happens from a grass roots level, deep conversations and holistic vision.
Caring about the Papa (mother Earth) we are a Green / No waste manufacturing space and use all the components of the beans. Under our brand Koko Smooth (a skincare range partnership with ‘Le Spa De Jour’ we create a delicious cacao body scrub (using coconut oil and medicinal Fetau oil also from Samoa) and also a hydrating chocolate face mask with face exfoliate.
We are also authentic as we live and breathe our mahi (work). Living Koko is part of our Living Indigneous Culture opening pathways for our own community.
Is there anything that you do outside of your business that is driven by similar objectives?
As a Community cultural development practitioner I am always working within my community to create culturally safe spaces. I run another organisation called Vaiusu (named after my village, the land that raised my family). We create cultural music and arts festivals, theatre programs and youth programs that share cultural knowledge and bring pride to our true history. Creating platforms for our community to write and share our own stories.
I believe people’s disconnection to land is what is making ourselves as well as our planet sick. To reconnect to land we reconnect to our culture and history and as a community who’s history lies within its arts practises. Our written language arrived with western settlement so alot of our written history is not in our words or lived experiences. By educating our young people on the history of our lands and reconnecting to the environment we give our planet more allies to fight for her.
What’s your day-to-day like?
10min meditation and movement – I do Pasifika movements to stretch my body.
I set up my teams days and then head out for a 1hr walk through the park before they arrive, saying hi to all the trees. #truestory lol
I prefer to get all our cacao creations done in the morning with the LK Crew and use this time as a catch up and check in with everyone.
My afternoons I spend time responding to non-urgent emails, scheduling our social media. Connecting with suppliers and re-ordering and planning.
My evenings are at the gym, food prep, eating and mentally processing and downloading with my partner in business and life Glen Reiss.
Weekends are always in nature, meditation by the beach with cacao and sister friends.
Then a bit of me time before bed looks like reading a book, playing my guitar or watching a movie.
How do you grow and scale your business, and what are the main growth constraints and opportunities?
For us the main growth constraints which had to be addressed in Samoa was to understand whether our farmers would be able to support an increase in our order. A question we had was how does an increase of supply affect Samoa? What kind of pressures will be on farmers to produce? and how will this affect the local cacao markets? The last thing we wanted to do is take too much out of Samoa and the local market be affected, local prices for our traditional drinking cacao to become unaffordable for our families.
A program was created in Samoa to offer free cacao seedlings to anyone who wanted to cultivate cacao, championed by Savaii Koko. This program increased the amount of domestic plot farms we could source our cacao from and created opportunities for villages to have smaller cash crops.
In your opinion, what are the top skills necessary to be a successful eco-entrepreneur?
I think understanding relational spaces and true reciprocity is a skill necessary for an eco-entrepreneur. Being in a mind set of self actualization also helps.
Being able to apply a risk management approach to decision making, identifying risks, assessing and prioritising as efficiently and mindfully as possible is also a top skill needed for any business venture or project.
Eco-entrepreurs also need a peripheral vision – to consider with every decision
-how does this affect the grown of the business?,
-does anyone suffer from this decision? and
-how will this affect the environment?
Researching and answering these questions honestly and ensuring there is positive balance and outcomes is the true role of an Eco-entrepreur.
What have you learned about your customers and yourself since launch?
I have learnt that our commUNITY want to understand the gafa (genealogy) of their foods. They are seeking authentic, transparent and honest brands.
And that many of us are calling for an agricultural revolution and a greener better world for the ourselves and the next generation. Our bodies are literally craving it and with each thing I learn about cacao and our living culture I want to share with our community. It brings to light our cultural commonalities, the beauty in our human ways and this kind of connection we all need more of.
Any “lessons learned” or advice you can share with aspiring or current green business owners?
Don’t give up, we need more people like you in the world.
People that make our environment a priority.
I have learnt over the years to be more gentle with myself and to disconnect my self worth to finances of our business. Now adays I keep focusing on the plan and ethos.
Also at first it can feel isolating and many business networking groups didn’t feel like the right fit, but your community is out there. Just keep sowing your seeds and showing up, with the right social media plan they will find you. 😉
What inspires you every day to wake up and keep going?
Our cacao farmers inspire me, their in depth knowledge on nature’s cycles reminds me to connect more with mine and be gentle. When our creations come from a space of flow we have balance within our minds and hearts. Seeing the farmers in balance with nature will always inspire my work.
Our LK Crew – our team inspires Glen and I. We are blessed to be working with some grounded global indigenous women, Sauimalae Fa’amoe & Lalenn Bou come together to create amazing cacao products with us. The aloha they bring into our space, by showing up as their authentic selves inspires us to continue to do this work too.
And last by not least my elders inspire me, I am blessed to have unapologetic women watching over and guiding our mahi (work). My mother, (Etta Preuss) and my Aunties, mum’s sisters and Dad’s sister are resilient women, holding so much mana (spiritual strength) and grace it inspires me to create big and to carve out new paths with alofa (love).
“…foods connect us to our ancestors, our history. It has an ability to trigger the most powerful emotions. Knowing our foods gafa (genealogy) can support a respectful relationship with the environment, our community and ourselves.”
Phoebe Preuss is a Samoan entrepreneur, a Marine and Environmental Activist & Performing Artist.. Artist Director of performance art & production company ‘Vaiusu’, Co-director of Nuholani Polynesian Dance and Co-founder of Living Koko an eco-friendly, no waste cacao manufacturing space that support rural economic opportunities in the Pacific, by seeking overseas markets for cacao sourced from new and established domestic plot village farms.
Phoebe advocates for culturally appropriate foods and food sovereignty sharing the importance of understanding what is fueling our bodies and minds.