On The Sakau Trail

    The sakau trail takes us to a look at three popular questions: Where did it originate, how does it work, and how does one get into the market?

Origins -- There is debate over the exact origins of sakau.  Some say Vanuatu while others say Papua New Guinea, Indonesia or even the Asian mainland.  Like a lot of Pacific history, we donít always have the necessary details because of a lack of physical artifacts and written records.  We do have oral histories but these contain so much information mutation and mythology that they are only of limited use.  However, the research shows that there are three things that we can be fairly certain of -- 1) The sakau plant (Piper methysticum) is descended from an ancestor plant (Piper wichmanii) which is indigenous to Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.  2) Sakau has been cultivated for about three thousand years for medicinal, ritual and recreational purposes.  3) Evidence for very early and widespread use can be found in Vanuatu.  Beyond these three statements we enter more and more into the realm of speculation, and like much of Pacific history, there are still many more facts waiting to be discovered by enterprising historical, archeological and anthropological researchers.

Effects -- The active ingredients in sakau (the kavalactones) comprise a psychoactive drug.  Alcohol, tobacco, coffee, betelnut and sakau are all culturally-approved psychoactive drugs.  Being culturally-approved does not necessarily mean that they are good for you, it just means that they are culturally-approved.  However, it is probably safe to say that, when used in moderation, sakau and betelnut are less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.  But when used in excess, sakau and betelnut are also potential health risks.

      Psychoactive drugs affect our brain and behavior.  The brain is a chemical factory that makes chemicals called neurotransmitters.  Our brain cells, called neurons, use these chemicals to communicate messages throughout the brain and body.  Sakau, like other psychoactive drugs, changes our brainís chemistry to give us its effects.  Sakau slows down the rate of neural firing and that leads to its relaxing effects.  Sakau extract is a superior anti-anxiety drug and muscle-relaxer because it is just as strong as other drugs in use, but unlike other drugs, it is not addictive and it has no major negative side-effects when used according to clinical dosages.

Marketing  -- There is currently about a $100 million a year market for sakau extract, primarily in the United States and Europe, and it has also begun to expand into Asia and Australia.  The European and American markets are dominated by producers, processors and distributors from or affiliated with Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Hawaii. That does not mean that Pohnpei enterprises cannot compete with them.  On the contrary, these existing companies have paved the way.  They have laid the marketing groundwork, the consumers have been identified and marketing strategies have been developed to sell to them.  The newly emerging markets of Asia and Australia also hold promise for Pohnpei sakau entrepreneurs.

    The key to success in the export of sakau extract is quality:  Quality processing, packaging, promotion and distribution.  To be successful in these sophisticated markets, an entrepreneur must meet strict quality criteria in these three areas.  But first, do your market research.  Find out whoís buying it and why -- health conscious people looking for alternative herbal medicines and supplements, people looking for a new legal intoxicant, Pacific islanders living overseas?  How much are they paying for it?  What kind of packaging and promotional slogans pushes peopleís buttons to make them want to buy it? 

      Then find out how to process it according to the relevant standards.  You will need to employ a good chemist.  Lastly, package and promote it in an attractive, attention-getting fashion.  Hawaii and Fiji kava sellers are taking advantage of the cultural aspects of the plantís use in their marketing promotions, and so could Pohnpei.   Some online sites sell dried plant parts, both whole and pounded, for Samoans and Tongans living in Hawaii and the mainland.  There may even be a market for fresh vacuum-packed sakau roots.  Additional products might be developed.  There is an apple and cinnamon flavored kava spray in California health stores that you spray in your mouth to get the effect.  There is money to be made on the world sakau market but it requires skill and commitment.  Who knows?  That moist grassy sakau trail on a Pohnpei hillside could lead to overseas destinations.

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