We caught up with Manawatū locals, Benoit and Mahalee Guieysse about one of the regions newest innovative ventures: Tahi Spirulina – New Zealand’s first enterprise producing food from micro-algae.
How did Tahi Spirulina come to be?
Benoit: The catalyst for Tahi Spirulina was a trip to France back in 2016 when I saw first-hand the artisan production methods being utilised to grow high value spirulina crops. I was aware through my own research with spirulina in New Zealand that at that time all the spirulina being sold in New Zealand was imported from the likes of China, India and the USA. I saw an opportunity in the market for a high quality New Zealand grown spirulina that utilised the French artisan production methods to create a superior product and create an alternative “crop” for New Zealand producers looking to reduce their environmental footprint.
On a personal level, this was an opportunity to translate the knowledge and experience gained through my years of research and consultancy into a commercial venture creating real value. It was a big decision for Mahalee and I to take a chance and begin a business while both working regular jobs and raising a family, but we decided to take the plunge.
From there I roped in fellow founding shareholders and directors Rob Lawler, Olivier Ausseil and Justin Hall. Since that point in 2016 we’ve evolved our production methods as we’ve scaled up, we’ve created and launched the Tahi brand and have had product on the market for over 15 months.
Who is the team behind Tahi Spirulina?
Benoit: We have a team of six part and full-time employees with our farm located at Himatangi Beach, Manawatū. We have a full-time CEO in my Director colleague Justin Hall and I work part-time as Technical Director while continuing my full-time day job as a Professor in Chemical and Bioprocess Engineering at Massey University, where I am also head of the department.
As Technical Director for Tahi, I guide the production team who conduct day-to-day operations as well as driving process innovation and product development. Mahalee works with CEO Justin Hall on the customer and consumer facing aspects of the business.
I initially did a fair amount of planning and design, but I am now more specifically focused on operations, quality control, and research: I make sure we consistently deliver quality biomass, constantly seek to improve our processes, and oversee projects in developing new products.
Mahalee: My focus has been on the customer and consumer facing side of the business resulting in development of the Tahi brand and building relationships with our incredibly supportive network of resellers nationally, direct customers, and local creative agencies. It’s also been incredibly exciting to establish a brand for something that’s never been done in New Zealand before. As an innovative food producer, we’ve really had to think outside the box and carve a path for algae innovations here in NZ.
With my international and local work experience in Marketing and Comms, it made sense to support the business the best way I could. There’s a lot of education and awareness needed around what spirulina is, why it’s good for you and how to enjoy it, so that encompasses a lot of my role.
What inspires you most about your work?
Benoit: After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Toulouse France, I began my Ph.D. research on the biodegradation of hazardous pollutants at Lund University in Sweden. It was towards the end of my studies that I started to work with microalgae, initially as part of a collaboration with France.
This work rapidly expanded to the field of algae-based wastewater and, it gradually morphed into the engineering of algal cultivation and the study of its environmental impact.
With Tahi Spirulina I wanted to create tangible value from my knowledge as well as, in the longer term, a platform for something much bigger for the greater good: the needs are large and possibilities even larger as there is so much we can do with algae.
Mahalee: We get a chance to bring something pure and good into people’s lives. Educating people about what spirulina actually is and its incredible health benefits has been really rewarding. Not only do we offer Kiwis a locally grown product instead of overseas imported spirulina, but we are able to do so through a sustainable artisan production model. Sharing the pioneering story of NZ algae innovators working together to create sustainable future foods right here in Manawatū inspires me greatly.
What advantages are there in launching a startup in Manawatū?
Benoit: Manawatū is a world-leading area in the Agrifood sector: this means we can easily access research facilities and expertise. In general, the level of support we have received has been outstanding and I really want to thank Earle Creativity Trust, Massey University, CEDA, and FoodHQ for their help so far. From day one, we’ve had unwavering support from our networks in the region.
Mahalee: The calibre and heart of the people in this community has made all the difference. We have the very best in the business here in Manawatū, and with so much talent in a tight-knit community it means you can easily connect with creators and innovators who won’t put you on a long waiting list. From design, branding, web development, video and photography the support from local businesses has been outstanding.
Manawatū also remains our strongest sales region. You know the saying ‘it takes a village’? That’s exactly the type of spirit that has helped us move mountains here in Manawatū and for this we will always be grateful.
Why is New Zealand grown spirulina so good?
Benoit: We have combined the advantages of the ‘French artisan production model’ to enable small-scale sustainable farming with the best food-safety practice. This means, for example, that our spirulina is grown inside a greenhouse in order to prevent water evaporation and pollution from dust and animal species – nearly all the other spirulina sold in NZ would have been grown in open ponds. NZ grown also means quality you can trust – each lot is tested by an independent facility before it is packed on-site for optimal freshness.
In addition, our growing methods have been so successful that our spirulina contains up to three times more iron than all other brands available here in NZ.
Mahalee: One of the most consistent pieces of feedback we get from our customers and stockists is about the superior taste and flavour of Tahi. So much so that we launched a new product called “Spirulina Crunchies” after the overwhelming popularity we received at the Go Green Expo last year.
Spirulina Crunchies is a tasty and convenient way to enjoy spirulina – ready to nibble on straight from the pouch. It’s one step closer to the source – a whole and un-ground form of dried spirulina. Packed with a bio-available nutrients including natural iron and antioxidants, NZ grown Tahi Spirulina tastes good enough to eat without needing to mix or blend into other foods.
What are the health benefits of spirulina that appeal to you the most?
Benoit: Personally, I value that it contains high amounts of antioxidants, phycocyanin and carotenoids. Beta-carotene is a precursor for vitamin A, but unlike a vitamin A supplement, we cannot overdose beta-carotene, and vitamin A is critical for vision among other things. Phycocyanin is a wonder molecule in its own right, but it has especially been associated with performance.
Mahalee: As a woman, it’s definitely the iron for me. The fact that spirulina has the highest source of iron compared to other food is unbelievable. It’s a plant-based protein and has more iron than spinach. One teaspoon of Tahi Spirulina contains 72% of the average adult’s recommended daily iron intake. And that’s natural iron that is easy for your body to absorb and digest. In just one teaspoon of spirulina, you get a heap of bio-available micro-nutrients including all your essential amino acids, a bunch of vitamin B’s and minerals like magnesium, zinc, phosphorus and calcium.
What are your future goals for Tahi Spirulina?
Benoit: Continue to scale the business up to establish itself as a premium New Zealand brand, both here and overseas. And to develop new spirulina-based products with a strong health focus to attract new consumers to the category.
Mahalee: That it becomes a household staple. All across the country and the world you’ll hear things like ‘Oh darling, we’re out of spirulina, can you make sure to add that to the list?’. Everyone can benefit from spirulina – all you need is a teaspoon a day and it’s jam packed with bio-available nutrients, minerals, and natural anti-oxidants. It’s a great way to sneak in some extra superfood goodness for kids too.
What’s your favourite way to eat spirulina?
Benoit: Mixed into yoghurt with muesli – I recently started to blend our spirulina powder with blackcurrant powder and it’s even better. I also love our homemade spirulina muesli bars.
Mahalee: I love blending Tahi into smoothies – the colour is brilliant. You can also use this blend for breakfast bowls and add granola and seeds as toppings.