Healing myself, one dish at a time
Suli Autagavaia talks to Samoan born and raised entrepreneur Alpha Maiava about his journey from food poverty to food opulence.
From village to luxury
Since leaving his humble village, Nofoa’lii, as a young teen, his personal and professional experiences have helped create a rich life, in which Alpha has found his dreams and become the CEO of his life.
In Dubai, Alpha was the first Pacific Islander General Manager for a local wealthy Arab family, Al Habtoor Group’s subsidiary firm, Accenture Investment. He managed a multi-cultural staff of over 200 and networked with members of the Saudi Arabia royal family and corporate giants such as Saudi Aramco and Emirates. This experience paved the way to another opportunity as the Sales and International Growth Manager, responsible for expanding Sumo Sushi and Bento in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.
“When I was growing up in Samoa, this was the kind of stuff I dreamed of. No one ever told me when I was growing up in Nofoa’lii, that one day, I’d be in charge of foreign companies, flying in and out of the Middle East and growing companies in franchising and intellectual property rights.”
A humble islander in an affluent desert.
“As a Pacific Islander, they liked the humanness I brought to the job. Even though it was all about money, I’m great at storytelling and I used stories to do business. They trusted me with millions of dollars.”
Success and money afforded Alpha and his young family a lifestyle of travel, lavish brunches, and Moet in abundance. However, the irony of abundance was his undoing.
Waking up to Coca-Cola
Despite the successes, Alpha’s eating and drinking habits remained his Achilles’ heel.
“As my wife will tell you, I used to wake up in a Coca-Cola bottle. In Samoa, we used to buy the $1 lollywater and just party and drink until I got sick and was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. My parents had diabetes, but I was worse than them. I ate and partied myself into type 2 diabetes.”
Waking up to Coca-Cola continued throughout Alpha’s young adult life, marriage, family, and professional life in Dubai where the food opulence took his diabetes to dangerous heights.
Upon his return home to New Zealand four years ago, the reality of his health situation finally caught up with him. Alpha’s family doctor declared him the worst patient seen in years, with an alarming Hb1Ac blood sugar level at 100 mmol/mol above the normal range.
“I thought, what a liar I am. I say that I want to be around for my kids, but I was eating myself to death.”
Imagining a future without his wife, Falepau, and his three children, Alpha decided to stop sprinting towards his death and start making changes to reverse his shocking blood sugar level. He self-medicated, exercised, and ate more vegetables, but he still hadn’t truly addressed his thinking around food.
“For every five steps forward, I went back 20. I was always falling off the wagon.”
If not now, when?
“In January 2021, I weighed 160 kilos, doing physio twice a week and taking the maximum dose of insulin. As a typical islander, I thought the pills would solve all my problems. So then, I started to slowly change the way I ate, not only me but my family also; and that’s when I discovered the Tongan chef, Ana Ma’ilei Savio (of Gia’s Grab & Go) who makes plant-based, allergy-free food. The first thing we ordered was vegan sapasui (chop suey) – our son and daughter loved it! So that was our motivation to order more.”
And there it is – the love – the love for a child’s happiness. Alpha realized something bigger than his taste buds and diabetes – his children’s enjoyment of plant-based food. The change he’d been seeking, was seeking him; healing himself whilst nourishing his own family. He wasn’t alone in this challenge, it’d become a family challenge – Team Maiava.
Embracing the Challenge
“Ana encouraged me to take the AotearoaNew Zealand Vegan Society’s Vegan Pasifika 21 Day Challenge, a month before it launched. By the time I started the Challenge, I was already well versed in plant-based food as I was cooking veggie dishes for my own family’s health challenge that we were doing. So after three months, I went to measure my blood glucose levels and it was 77mmmol/mol – from 150 to 77. The nurses said, ‘This is the best your blood has ever been, what did you do?’”
He rejected the cultural allergy to non-meat and non-dairy foods.
He changed his thoughts about food and the emotions he attached to food. Our thoughts are powerful. They can either bring you to your knees or lift you. The joy of family meals isn’t the roast pig or lamb, but the company of his wife and children. The real joy.
Alpha and his young family are a shining example of what an everyday, South Auckland, plant-based Pasifika family looks like. Both he and Marie are home-based entrepreneurs and their two eldest attend a local primary school while the baby is at home with them. A complementary couple — Alpha cooks the mains and Marie, dessert. Sunday church is followed by the traditional Sunday to’anai (lunch). And of course, it’s vegan. A pasifika family walking the talk, one dish at a time.
Sharing the good news
Recently, Alpha emceed a local board community event and wanted something to wear — that is, something that still fitted and looked decent. In a moment of fearful hope, he tried on one of his many tailor-made suits: It fit! He could button it up! Life wasn’t perfect at that moment, but it felt just right. Alpha had a skip in his step as he hosted the event, beaming like he’d just won the Biggest Loser competition. His big personality just got bigger. So big, he received three more gigs from amongst the multicultural participants. Just right.
“When we eat well, everything changes,” Alpha reflects.
Wanting the Pasifika community to embrace a plant-diet as he and his family have, Alpha plans to use his multimedia company to promote and spread the yummy goodness of plant-based cooking. Watch this space. Because Alpha now wakes up to coconut milk and feijoa sparkling.
- Aotearoa Vegan and Plant Based Living Magazine
The articles we present in our magazine and blog have been written by many authors and are are not necessarily the views and policies of the Vegan Society.
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