A native brew for success
7 October 2020 at 8:15 am
Gulbarn is a native bush food used by the Alawa people for thousands of years as a medicine. Now, Samara Billy is sharing the plant with everyone as a delicious tea, and using it to bring jobs and money into her community, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on social enterprise.
About 580 kms southeast of Darwin, in the remote Roper region of the Northern Territory, you’d be hard pressed to find a spot where Gulbarn wasn’t growing.
The bush plant, which grows wild and in plentiful amounts, has been picked sustainably and used for thousands of years by the Alawa people.
Traditionally it’s brewed for drinking, inhaling or bathing in as a way to alleviate colds, coughs and stomach aches. But its commercial potential was discovered quite accidentally.
Back in 2013, the founder of Indigenous business facilitator Enterprise Learning Projects (ELP), Laura Egan, travelled to Minyerri, Samara Billy’s hometown, to chat about starting an arts centre.
“Laura had come down with a really nasty cold, and so Samara suggested she drink a cup of Gulbarn tea, because that’s what they all drink when they have a cold,” Alexie Seller, the CEO of ELP, tells Pro Bono News.
“Not only was it delicious, but it made Laura feel great.”
Billy told Pro Bono News she thought turning it into a tea was a way to share the plant with lots of people.
“I’ve been drinking Gulbarn since I was a kid and it helps us to relax and to stay well and healthy,” Billy said.
“I just wanted to try something new and to let people know that when we get sick out here we use our native bush medicine.”
With funding and business expertise from ELP, Billy co-founded Gulbarn, turning it into the enterprise it is today.
The unique flavour profile of Gulbarn – with notes of sweet citrus, tea tree and eucalyptus – meant it was an instant hit with tea connoisseurs.
It’s also naturally caffeine free, as well as high in antioxidants, a rich source of calcium, magnesium and potassium, and it can be drunk hot or cold.
While Gulbarn Tea’s impact predominantly lies in the employment opportunities for Minyerri locals (there are now 16 people that make up the Minyerri operations and harvesting team), Seller said that impact has also been created around learning what it takes to build a business and a brand.
In the beginning the business was about harvesting and selling the tea. Billy and her family would take the tea to local events and tea festivals to meet customers and gauge what they were looking for.
Working alongside the ELP team, Billy and members of the community have developed a harvest management system, a storytelling and marketing plan, and a plan on how they can scale operations to reach a broader customer base.
Seller emphasised that throughout this journey, every business decision has been driven by Billy and the rest of the community.
“We come in from time to time, especially for new processes or new training needs… particularly now there are quite a lot of young girls in the community who have just finished high school, and job opportunities are quite limited,” she said.
“So we will work with Samara to figure out what their interests are, what they’re able to do, and then work with them to structure those job opportunities.”
Gulbarn Tea profits are split between ELP and the family community arts centre, and Seller said that after five years, the business is set to turn a profit very soon.
“It’s been five years of development and heavy investment, and I think we are now at a point where we will see profits only continue to grow,” she said.
Gulbarn is now stocked nationally by boutique tea retailers and online stores, and is served in a number of cafes around the country.
The enterprise also recently partnered with Rabbit Hole, an organic tea company in Sydney who now manage the packaging and distribution of Gulbarn across the country.
Seller said this has been helpful to not only reduce the cost of packaging the tea in-community, but so energy could be directed into diversifying employment opportunities.
For Billy, growing the business to this size is something she never expected.
“I didn’t think I would end up this far, it’s very exciting and a shock,” she said.
“Gulbarn brings me a lot of joy and confidence.”
Growth, at a pace
Growth and expansion are often regarded as markers of success in business, but Seller said that understanding how the community wanted to go about that was a critical part of their relationship.
While building a brand and relationships with buyers was important for Billy and her team, seeing the tea stocked in every major supermarket wasn’t a path they necessarily wanted to go down.
“It’s about trying to find the right markets for the tea to support the community’s goals,” Seller said.
Understanding and navigating the intention of the product was another aspect that had to be closely monitored.
For instance, despite attracting interest from gin distilleries, because of problems alcohol had caused in the community, they did not want to associate Gulbarn with any kind of alcohol.
Seller said that at times, this has been tricky to manage, because while selling in bulk to distributors was a good business opportunity, it meant the enterprise didn’t have full control over where the product ended up.
“We’ve spoken to distributors who would buy the tea in bulk and sell it onto a range of companies, such as gin distilleries and cosmetic companies… and we can ask them to try and control where it goes, but there’s no guarantee that it won’t go into a bottle of gin, for example,” she said.
She said that keeping Billy and her team abreast of customer feedback and business opportunities was important, but that ultimately it was the community’s decision where the product went.
“And of course, we’re comfortable to follow those decisions, especially about usage,” Seller said.
Gulbarn in the time of COVID
The outbreak of COVID has meant that running a social enterprise in 2020 has looked a bit different, the same is true for Gulbarn.
Strict lockdown restrictions across remote communities meant this year’s harvest season was cut incredibly short. But that didn’t stop Billy from making the most of it.
She pulled together a crew for harvest, teaching them about the operations and how the harvest process works.
“I’ve just finished weighing up our latest harvest and it means a lot to me to be able to work on Gulbarn while hanging out and spending time with my family,” she said.
Looking ahead to 2021, Seller said they are hoping to reach the $100,000 mark (this year’s turnover was around $50,000), which is something that’s possible considering the sales opportunities Gulbarn now has.
“This will mean doubling or tripling harvest output, which means doubling or tripling job opportunities in communities, which is a really great outcome,” Seller said.
And for Billy, providing more and more opportunities for her community is a top business priority. That, and getting her favourite AFL team to drink Gulbarn.
“I just hope that we keep going and get more young people involved, including my daughters,” she said.
“I’d also love to have the North Melbourne footballers to drink my tea. Jed Anderson! That’d be the best.”