I do love a good social enterprise story, especially one that focuses on creating opportunities in rural areas. A few months ago, I headed off to the Coconut Technology Centre for a tour of their facility. I left with a lot of coconut oil, and a very belated blog post.
The story starts with Dr Dan Etherington, a passionate man for social justice and an academic at the ANU who researches smallholder agriculture. In 1975, he went on a conference to Sri Lanka to look at tea. As part of the conference, he did a tour of the coconut industry corporation. This forced him to look at the coconut in comparison to the tea leaf, and he was amazed. Tea is one commodity and one product, but the coconut is so many products in one.
There’s the water inside: a fantastically nutritious and ready-to-serve hydrating product.
There’s the flesh: an edible and tasty product in itself, but also open to value adding.
Within the flesh is the coconut oil: eight times higher in lauric acid than mother’s milk.
There’s the shell: a great source of charcoal that can cook a meal for about half the cost of wood charcoal. In addition, coconut shell has an extremely fine and dense carbon structure that makes it fantastic as activated carbon for filtering a range of things, including microscopic particles. Take a look at your water filtration systems – there’s activated carbon. Air respirators – activated carbon.
Coconut husk: great for door mats, textiles, and rope.
Coconut flower: the nectar of which is a sweetener to challenge maple and the hippest of hipster sweeteners, agave.
Coconut leaf: used to weave sleeping mats, hats and baskets.
Finally, coconut timber: a gorgeous long grain, beautiful when polished up, and extremely strong when used correctly.
Needless to say, Dr Dan suddenly became a coconut addict (it’s easy to do). He then spent the next 20 years fostering this addiction, and finally received funding to do a project looking into the coconut industry.
What he discovered is that, in the Pacific, most of the coconut industry is based on copra – dried coconut flesh, which is extracted and used to make oil. He also discovered that people are slaving away to produce copra, shipping the heavy bag to market themselves, getting low pay, then buying food and a ticket to get home, leaving them very little change for their efforts. Seeing a similarity between this back-breaking “slave” labour and Australia’s much earlier exploitation of Pacific Islanders in the cane fields, his heart breaks. There must be a better way!
There is. Using his experience from Sri Lanka, Dr Dan realises that by extracting the oil in the village, and then shipping just the oil, workers are able to produce a high value product with lower shipping costs and greater returns. Introducing Direct Micro-Expelling (DME).
Direct means the oil is extracted directly from fresh coconuts.
Micro means it’s a factory at a village scale, making it super family friendly and perfect for including people with disability. By operating in the village, people can stay with their families and earn income at home, instead of joining the urban pull that we currently see crippling rural and urban communities alike.
Expelling is based on a technique that they found being used in Kiribati. By making sure that the coconut meal is moist enough and soft enough, the oil can be expelled under very low pressures – such as hand pressure.
Compare this with getting oil out of copra, which generally requires very high pressure (megapascals, apparently – whatever that means). To achieve this, a big screw press, screws, presses and heats the meal, leaving a rather burnt and tortured coconut meat, plus oil. Copra oil is generally yellow, smelly and tastes disgusting, so to convert it into coconut oil, they then put it through a process called RBD: They refine it to remove the sediments, bleach it to remove the colour, and deoderise it to remove the aroma and the flavour. It is then shipped to a health store near you and sold as coconut oil. So much for a “health” food.
With the DME technology, Dr Dan decided to start in the Solomon Islands after seeing the challenges the country had recently faced with cyclones and tensions. He partnered with a local Solomon’s business to establish Kokonut Pacific Solomon Islands (KPSI). Their purpose was to create a viable, integrated value chain that supports everyone from the growers right through to the consumers.
Kokonut Pacific Solomon Islands also got together with Kokonut Pacific Australia (trading as Niulife Australia and developers of the DME tecnology), and the Producers Association (a cooperative that includes the coconut growers and the meal producers) and started the Coconut Technology Centre. The purpose of the centre is research and training.
As part of our tour, we got to try our hand at each stage of the Kokonut Pacific process, just as one would in the village.
The process starts with the coconut growers. These are families who collect coconuts from their own, and others’ plantations. They make sure only to collect coconuts that are fully mature (a unique feature of Kokonut Pacific that ensures a higher concentration of lauric acid), and that have naturally fallen from the tree (ie. not harvested). Each coconut tree will produce around 6-7 coconuts per month, and it takes 10 months to go from coconut flower to mature fruit. It will take around 15 coconuts to produce 1L of oil.
They then husk the coconuts to make them lighter and easier to handle. Husking a coconut requires removing the outer skin using a very pointy stake that would be equally effective in fighting vampires. It looks really easy, but really isn’t. The husked coconuts are collected into a heap and transported to the village DME factory.
Here, the growers get paid directly, channelling the cash straight into the hands of the growers – be it men, women, elderly or youth. This payment method is also unique to Kokonut Pacific. It differs from the system used for copra, where multiple families or villages combine their product in a form of cooperative, and where payment is made to the leading member of the group – usually a male – who distributes it when, and as, necessary. Great if you have a good leader – terrible if you don’t, and a pretty reliable way to bypass putting cash directly into the hands of women.
Once the nuts are collected and paid for, they’re cracked open in the traditional way – with a bush knife. They are then graded.
The first grade is coconuts that are fit for human consumption – no smell and beautiful and white inside. The second grade has vara starting to grow. Vara is actually the start of a new coconut tree, generating shoots and roots, and is formed by feeding on the coconut flesh that has been broken down by enzymes inside the coconut. It also feeds on the coconut oil, reducing the oil’s quality and, therefore, making it less great for coconut oil production. However, the vara itself is totally delicious and edible, despite looking like a little foam yellow ball. The bottom grade is rotten (smells like vinegar), which is then used to make copra.
The first grade coconuts are then grated using an electric grater. We watched as one of the operators grated a coconut in 30 seconds – slightly faster than the 15 minutes it takes me on a manual grater. In fact, a good grater can grate around 100 coconuts an hour. The end product is a nice, soft, oily, moisture-filled flesh. At this point, you can squeeze the meal to make coconut cream, or set it on its path to coconut oil glory. Once the graters have about 3.5 kilograms of grated coconut (~15 coconuts), they then take it to the dryer.
The dryer is really just a glorified BBQ plate. Its aim is to evaporate out the water as quickly as possible (grated coconut is about 1/3 water, 1/3 oil and 1/3 meal), to stop it from fermenting and to prevent any bacteria from growing. The operators achieve this by picking the grated coconut up with a metallic dustpan-looking thing and tossing it gently over the BBQ plate like confetti. This warms the coconut slightly and allows maximum air to circulate through it for a quick dry. The other trick is to make sure the coconut is moving all the time so that it doesn’t burn, as this creates a very fine dust which is hard to remove from the oil – much easier said than done. I had a go at it and was focusing so much on being gentle that I held the scoop a little too gently and threw it, with the coconut, over the side. Oops.
Once the material is dry it has a bit of a crunchy feel to it. The operators are able to tell, by touch, how much water content remains inside. The magic number to aim for is 3% moisture. Any drier than that, the coconut meal is too hard to release the oil. Any wetter than that, the coconut tends to jam in the cylinder. The fine moisture content in the oil will also cause it have to a low shelf life.
With coconut at the right moisture level, it is then loaded / jammed into a cylinder. The cylinder is then loaded into the Expeller – an over-glorified corking gun. This is when the fun really starts. Using a ratchet, to which your body weight can be applied through a chain stirrup if you need, you squeeze the oil out of the coconut. Boy, is there some oil! Around a litre of oil literally come streaming out and into a jug below. It is truly mesmerising to watch.
Once you have squeezed out all the oil, each batch is recorded for the weight of the oil, before being poured and filtered into a bigger bucket to remove any sediments. The meal is pressed out as a huge compressed cylinder, and used in the village for stock feed, so nothing goes to waste. The pigs love it and it sure beats a diet of human faeces!
From there, the oil will stay in the buckets for two weeks to settle. They are then decanted into a 60kg barrel that is coded to indicate the farm that it comes from and the day it was produced. This is shipped to KPSI.
When KPSI receive the barrel, they take out a sample of oil and test it for taste, colour and aroma. If the tests suggest that it’s not top quality, it will be given an additional test to check for free fatty acids. Free fatty acids are an indication of the load of enzymes that are present in the oil that could lead to rancidity. For virgin coconut oil to be classed as virgin coconut oil, free fatty acids need to be below 0.3%. KPSI ensures that coconut oil doesn’t go into a jar at any more than 0.2%.
If the oil is graded as first grade, it will be pumped into a blending tank to be filtered again. From there, it will be pumped into cardboard boxes with plastic liner and shipped for export for human consumption. The oil that doesn’t achieve first grade is put to good use in producing a wide selection of completely handmade soaps and (soon) lip balms and body scrubs. Everything produced at KPSI is certified organic, and certified fair trade. Just another way to ensure maximum returns for their workers.
After witnessing the DME in action, all I can say is that it is rather impressive in its simplicity. Obviously the people of Solomon Islands are also impressed, as there are now about 60 DMEs across the country. Villages that want to set up a DME factory apply first to KPSI, and then raise the funds to purchase the equipment (SBD$150,000 or around AUD$28,000). From there, they receive training and support, but manage the whole process themselves. A well-managed DME factory will ship 20 barrels a month (1200L or ~18,000 coconuts’ / 2750 coconut trees’ worth), and it usually takes about 2 years to fully recover their initial investment. That’s pretty good returns!
Now knowing the difference between copra “coconut oil” and coconut oil, it has really made me think about my purchasing power. The next time you buy coconut oil, I encourage you to think about what process it has gone through, and what support that oil provides to rural, smallholder farmers. Next time, I will be buying my premium quality coconut products from Kokonut Pacific, and I encourage you to do the same.
In Australia, you can find Kokonut Pacific products at most health food stores – trading as Niulife – or check out the Niulife website. If your local store doesn’t sell it, be sure to tell them that they should!
If you are as fascinated as I am and want to learn more about the DME technology and Kokonut Pacific, I also encourage you to go to their website: www.kokonutpacific.com.au . There you will see links to Dr Dan presenting the DME on New Inventors, and an episode on KPSI from ABC’s Landline.
Now, I think it’s time for some Christmas shopping!
* My sincerest apologies to Frank and KPSI if I have mucked up any of the facts. It was a while ago, and I was high on that delicious Coconut Coffee thing.