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New lease of life for 'tree of life'

Coconut occupies more land in the Pacific region than any other crop (© Richard Markham)
Coconut occupies more land in the Pacific region than any other crop
© Richard Markham

Coconut, planted in swathes across many Pacific islands, is known across the region as the 'tree of life' because of its multitude of uses and traditional importance in people's lives. But for the last several decades, while countries in other parts of the world have forged ahead with new coconut-based industries, Pacific island growers continue to focus on copra and low-grade oil, which are poorly rewarded on world markets. As a result, the tree of life has been growing old in the region: with little incentive to care for trees and replant, the picture has been one of increasingly senile trees and declining productivity. Now however, there's a new drive to reinvigorate the coconut, with an approach called 'whole-nut processing'. Handled properly, it could address rural poverty as well as stimulate economic growth for the region.

A change of focus

The concept behind whole-nut processing is to develop multiple high-value products from the different parts of the coconut. Up to now, the focus on copra and oil has meant that only the flesh is used, and the other parts of the coconut - the water, husk and shell - are going to waste. Yet each of these can be processed into high-value products. There are also more valuable alternatives to copra and low-grade oil that can be made from the flesh.

Whole-nut processing could address rural poverty and stimulate economic growth (© Anne Moorhead)
Whole-nut processing could address rural poverty and stimulate economic growth
© Anne Moorhead

"We have seen how this can work in other parts of the world, notably Asia," says Tevita Kete, coconut expert based at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). "India and Sri Lanka have developed major industries based on processing of husks, and the Philippines is building a significant lead in processing, packaging and exporting coconut water as a natural health and sports drink. We are ready to develop some of these industries here in the Pacific islands."

Fledgling industries

There are already some fledgling industries to build on. Virgin coconut oil (VCO) is a high-value product made from coconut flesh, which is then further processed into luxury soaps and skincare products or used as a speciality cooking oil. Several Pacific island countries are beginning to produce VCO, mostly in small-scale community mills. In Vuna village on the island of Taveuni in Fiji, the VCO mill employs eight women and two men, and buys its coconuts from local producers. Processing the oil on Taveuni retains more of the added value in the community - the value of each coconut to the community is now about 45 cents compared with just 8 cents if it were sold for copra.

Village-level processing is the way to address rural poverty, and the VCO mill in Vuna is showing how this can work. But at the moment, the other parts of the coconut are being discarded. The plan is to develop village-level processing centres that also make use of the water, shells and husks. "The key is multipurpose processing," says Kete. "Any one product is unlikely to be profitable, but several products will multiply the benefits."

Other products that could be made in the villages include charcoal from shells, buttons and handicrafts also from shells, vinegar from coconut water, and bath and laundry soaps from lower grade oil. "All of these need relatively little equipment and training, so would be appropriate," explains Kete. A feasibility study on multipurpose processing centres has recently been carried out in Fiji, and the next step is to develop pilot centres in several countries, to demonstrate technical and commercial viability.

VCO is processed into luxury soaps and skincare products (© Anne Moorhead)
VCO is processed into luxury soaps and skincare products
© Anne Moorhead

Cocowood

Another aspect of the rejuvenation plan is to develop uses for the old trees, to promote their removal and replacement with young palms. Cocowood has a beautiful grain and colour, but is not the easiest wood to work. However, with the right technologies it can be developed into very attractive furniture and flooring, used in light construction, or carved into handicrafts. A company in Fiji, Pacific Green, is leading the way; it has developed technologies to work this special wood, and exports its unique designs around the world. The company buys its logs directly from communities, providing income and freeing up land for replanting.

Kete concludes: "Coconut occupies more land in the Pacific region than any other crop. It's our main sustainable asset. Now we need to put it to work again, for the people of the Pacific islands."

By Anne Moorhead

Date published: September 2011

 

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