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Devon business LittlePod reveals secret of export success ahead of Brexit

The owner of Queen’s Award-winning, Devon-based “LittlePod” which exports its real vanilla products worldwide, has described the importance to small businesses of firm foundations and future proofing, especially with the uncertainty of Brexit.

Nine years after establishing her real vanilla products company in the East Devon hamlet of Farringdon, Managing Director of LittlePod, Janet Sawyer BEM, has just received the inaugural 2019 Board of Trade Award for International Trade, an accolade awarded to fewer than 50 companies nationally.

Exporting within its first year of business, the company exports its Madagascan vanilla paste, pods and pure vanilla extract to 16 different countries, with customers as far flung as the Tiger Mountain Pokara Lodge in the mountains of Nepal.

LittlePod also offers pure coffee and pure chocolate extract, as well as vanilla beer. The beer is produced for LittlePod by Hunters Brewery in Ipplepen and was selected to be served at the Chairman’s dinner at the House of Commons in 2012.

Janet explained:

There was interest in our vanilla paste worldwide from the outset, so it made perfect sense to start exporting straight away. I was lucky enough to have my first wares sold at the Natural Kitchen in London, and within the first year I had shipped products to chefs and distributors in Europe and Hong Kong, amongst many others. It was tough, but I think this bold attitude to business has got us to where we are today. I’d encourage all small businesses and start-ups to at least consider if exporting within the first year is viable for them.


Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, told me Government research has shown that companies which export early, particularly in the first year, last longer. If you have strong foundations in place, there is no reason why you can’t do it too.

Since the company’s inception, the commercial insurer NFU Mutual has supported LittlePod’s business growth. Tahlia Waller from NFU Mutual in Exeter, said:

We were involved with the business from the outset and we knew LittlePod were keen to scale and to export, so we were able to provide them with the right policies and advise them on the right process to allow them to grow safely and securely.

Janet said:

We consider Tahlia and the NFU Mutual Exeter team as part of ours. They believed in the company from the very start and have been trusted consultants and a reliable sounding board ever since. As the company has grown, so has their invaluable support.

Identified as a good example of a small exporter actively preparing for Brexit, Janet – along with 30 other companies – was invited to the House of Commons to offer the viewpoint of small businesses on export tariffs post-Brexit.

Janet explained:

I was invited to a meeting at the House of Commons last year to discuss export tariffs and how this might impact small businesses. Some MPs explained that a lot of businesses, smaller ones in particular, aren’t preparing themselves for Brexit but I think it’s important to futureproof your company. Although nobody knows for certain what might happen, it is business as usual for us on the face of it, but behind the scenes we’re putting plans in place and assessing the risks and changes that may be necessary for a range of potential outcomes.

Over the past two years LittlePod has been working with international trade experts allowing its products to be sold and used all over the world. In 2018, the company was chosen to feature in the Department for International Trade’s ‘Exporting is Great’ campaign.

Following a roundtable discussion on Britain’s export strategy and working alongside Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox MP, and Minister of State for Trade and Export Promotion Baroness Fairhead CBE, LittlePod was emblazoned on the side of lorries, on posters and across social media alongside the strapline ‘If we can, you can’. The campaign was designed to encourage more businesses to export, particularly in their first year of business.

LittlePod began with the launch of a tube of natural vanilla paste which is equivalent to 20 entire vanilla pods, making them more versatile for cooking and the perfect store cupboard essential, lasting for two years.

Whilst vanilla extract uses extract grade pods to extract the vanillin and is a liquid, LittlePod’s vanilla paste utilises all the vanilla pods, with seeds, and is a more convenient and versatile way of using real vanilla pods. By using all the vanilla pods, not just the long straight ones, the farmers have a value for all their pods and the customer has an affordable option to artificial vanilla.

Janet explained:

97% of vanilla used in the western world is synthetic and most vanilla essence is chemically synthesised and contains just one flavour compound. Pure vanilla contains over 250 flavour compounds, so tastes better and is a more natural product too. Patricia Rain, a sustainability expert who is known as the ‘Vanilla Queen’ in the industry, said that we could lose real vanilla within a generation if we don’t act now. We’re pleased to see that this is changing and that LittlePod has played a part in that.

LittlePod’s aims since the outset have been to create innovative, high-quality products, promote exciting new ways of using vanilla in the kitchen, inform people about the benefits of real vanilla, to help communities which rely on vanilla cultivation, and conserve the fragile ecosystems in which pure vanilla is grown. It has already made great strides in achieving all of these.

The company was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development in 2018. Of the 80 companies eligible for the Sustainable Development award, only eight were recognised for their outstanding achievement.