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Nuts about the future

On the islands of Vanuatu in the South Pacific there is no mistaking the nangai nut season. At dusk, villages reverberate to the steady rhythm of knife on nut as villagers work to split asunder the hard outer case and reveal the soft white kernel of Canarium indicum. "We always used to eat our fill of nangai," says Chief Samson Bule pausing to berate a grandchild who grabs yet another mouthful, " but now they are worth good vatu [cash] to us."

Shelling nangai in Bwatnapne village, Pentecost Island, Vanuatu
Shelling nangai in Bwatnapne village, Pentecost Island, Vanuatu

At the central airstrip of the island of Pentecost, coconut-frond baskets of nuts are loaded into the hold of the passenger aircraft that calls in three times a week, to be flown south to the capital Port Vila. Larger quantities are sent down on the inter-island trading ships. Local businessman and exporter Charles Longwah is buying the nuts. "There's huge demand. It is organically produced. It has a special texture, so unique that even those with nut allergies can enjoy nangai." Gradually exports rose fast from a few dozen kilos to 300 tonnes of nangai shipped in the shell in 2002. Principle destinations include Australia, Japan and Hawaii; but the European Union has denied access to its markets. More recently there have been no nangai exports at all as local demand, after promotions in local hotels and shops, has been so strong.

Real benefits

"It takes many tonnes of production to supply just a few centimetres of supermarket shelves," explains Longwah, "so we are way off that. But a high-value low-volume crop is just what Vanuatu's farmers need." The farmers agree with him. The value of other agricultural exports - copra, coffee and cocoa - have all crashed, and after an exciting start a few years ago even exports of the herbal and medicinal extracts of the kava plant have all but collapsed.

Not only are nangai nuts economically attractive but growing them makes ecological sense too. C. indicum is a fast-growing forest tree and does well beneath the natural canopy or amongst the mix in a typical food garden clearing, where the sapling can get established while bananas, climbing yams and more are tended all around.

Up on the steep slopes of central Pentecost, Harrison Barae has a grove of young nangai. "Now that there are buyers who want nangai I am happy to plant a few," he says. Are they hard to establish? "You just have to keep wild pigs or other people's cattle away. And weed around so they can get space." It will be six years before his trees fruit. Harrison, and others planting nangai now, have hopes that the market will be even better by then.

Quality control

However, as any novel crop grower or trader knows, money does not just grow on trees. Macadamia, brazil and cashew, all established nuts, have only maintained their value - and returns to growers - where quality and consistency of supply are guaranteed. This is why trader Charles Longwah is running training sessions on the Vanuatu islands best suited to growing nangai, to explain to motivated farmers how to do all that it takes to produce top grade product. In his office-cum-depot, with shelves brimming with jars and packets of nangai ready for sale, he is cautiously optimistic about its potential. "There are a lot of other countries around the Pacific rim who'd like to grow and export nangai. I just want to make sure that Vanuatu gets a bite at the market."

Date published: November 2004

 

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