Founder of Kakadu Kitchen, Bininj man Ben Tyler, developed his passion for bush foods growing up in the Northern Territory. He recently completed a collaboration with one of Australia’s largest food rescue organisations, OzHarvest, to create 'Conscious Beverage'. Kim Berry speaks to Tyler about his commitment to share the heart of Bininj-Mungguy country with Australians and the world.
Bininj man Ben Tyler grew up in Kakadu National Park and West Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, learning about bush foods and Kakadu native botanicals from his Murumburr family and kin-relations. He started out selling fruits and native ingredients in his local community at Murdudjurl Creek.
With support from the for-purpose organisation specialising in microenterprise development, Many Rivers, to develop a business plan, he then had a bush tucker stall in Darwin selling salads and drinks flavoured with native ingredients.
It was that experience, and a mentorship with the Australian Centre for Business Growth (ABCG) that honed Tyler’s passion into a focused and driven enterprise.
A strategic partnership with a local water company, Refresh Darwin, came about to supply Indigenous branded water to the hotel venues Cooinda Lodge and Crocodile Hotel Kakadu. That was so successful, they asked about other products and specifically a gin.
“My brand stands for health, nature, and culture, so I told them if they wanted a gin, it would have to be non-alcoholic. I didn’t know how to make non-alcoholic gin at the time, but a friend of mine, David Willing, had opened a distillery in Darwin and gave me some space to experiment. Eventually he encouraged me to go to Sydney and spend some time with people distilling non-alcoholic spirits,” Tyler said.
Scalability and growth
In Sydney, he met Tim Triggs, the founder of non-alcoholic spirits brand ALTD Spirits, and they spent a day sharing knowledge about ingredients and distilling.
“Tim is an amazing drink maker. We talk through recipes, and I find the best native ingredient. It has to be something you can scale and have a consistency of supply, and that can be challenging with native ingredients.
“Scalability is something we talked about a lot. The growth ramp was instilled in me early on and I’ve carried it since. That mindset is so important, and you need to apply it across the whole supply chain, from ingredients to processing to distribution,” Tyler said.
Three months later Triggs approached him to work on a project together and three months after that, in late 2022, they launched a Kakadu An-marabula (Wild Peach) Bellini, made with fruit ethically harvested by the Bininj people in Kakadu National Park.
And more recently, the pair released a limited edition ALTD x Kakadu Kaboh (Green Ant) G&T with five more varieties in the pipeline.
“We’ve been working on one using djilidjilih, which is native sugar cane. That will go into production around March or April,” Tyler said.
A driving motivation
There’s a motivation in Tyler that underlies everything he does – to engage more Indigenous people in the industry, “to get a more powerful mob involved from the grass roots to right across the food chain”.
“The conversation is happening, and it is moving. We need to increase the numbers from the one to two per cent it currently is. And we’ve also got to make sure the ingredients can be wild or commercially harvested.
“There are a lot of challenges, but there’s also a lot of amazing things happening through organisations like the Northern Territory Indigenous Business Network and the First Nations Bushfood and Botanicals Alliance Australia.
“The conscious consumer is more aware of where ingredients are coming from, who picked the fruit, did it come from a farm or the bush – sovereignty has moved into the food space, its beyond land now,” he said.
“Our mission at Kakadu Kitchen is to respectfully share Bininj-Mungguy culture through food with as many people as possible while promoting First Nation voices in the Australian bush food industry.”
A new harvest
Tyler was approached by former engineer, James Ware, who wanted to do something about the food waste he saw in the restaurant he was working in and providing food to remote Indigenous communities. At the same time, Ware emailed the founder of OzHarvest Ronni Kahn looking for some advice.
OzHarvest saw an opportunity, with the Northern Territory being the only state or territory not covered by its food rescue services. It invited Ware to Sydney, who asked if Tyler could also come along because of the interesting work he was doing with native ingredients and local communities.
“We flew down to Sydney and met with the executive team, who really listened to us. The Territory is different to the rest of the country and how things have to be done differently – how expensive food is, its quality, the nutrition, the distances it travels, income, access to a vehicle to get to a shop, all of those issues around the access to affordable nutritious food,” Tyler said.
As well as that discussion, Tyler was introduced to Louise Tran, the head of OzHarvest’s profit-for-purpose arm. Louise had read about Tyler’s project with Triggs and wanted to explore a possible collaboration.
In every year’s harvest, around 1.4 million kilos of blueberries go to waste, and possibly they could be saved from landfill by Tyler using them to create a drink.
Tyler brought Triggs on board and in just under three months the duo had created Kakadu Kitchen x OzHarvest Conscious Drink, a non-alcoholic wine alternative, made with rescued blueberries and wild-harvested native botanicals – native lemongrass, pepperberry, lemon tea tree and oldman Saltbush – that were ethically sourced from First Nations-owned companies, and is then lightly carbonated.
It comes in a 750ml crown-sealed bottle, and every bottle sold enables OzHarvest to deliver two meals to people in need, with Kakadu Kitchen committing to planting an indigenous native edible plant for every case of six sold in the Northern Territory.
Triggs said, “The combination of all these wonderful native botanicals is like smelling a lemon rainforest. It’s herbal and sherbert-y all at once and best served simply chilled in a flute or coupe, with friends and family of course.”
Creating Conscious Drink also gave Tyler and Triggs the opportunity to articulate their motivation and goals even further. The intention behind the name was to move consumers away from viewing the drinks category as simply alcoholic or non-alcoholic.
“We wanted to move away from the binary view of beverages and convey that what we were making was something bigger that making a beverage. It’s a whole new category that is delicious drinks with impact.
For OzHarvest, it envisions the category focusing on provenance and culture, localisation, seasonality, sustainability, and social impact causes.
Kahn said this was the first collaboration for OzHarvest Ventures.
“Together with Kakadu Kitchen we believe a delicious product supporting a great cause can change consumer choices. This ‘Conscious Drink’ has been created to encourage people to think more deeply about how their actions and purchases can create positive impact for people and planet,” Kahn said.
A limited release of Kakadu Kitchen X OzHarvest ‘Conscious Drink’ is available for $30 online at www.harvestbites.com.au and selected venues.