It is time-consuming, dirty, lonely, arduous, male-dominated, fuel-intensive and low-paying work.
Over a period of 5-8 days, the white meat or kernel of the coconut, is dried - in the sun, in a kiln, smoked, or in a combination of these methods - to make copra.
Copra is highly susceptible to the growth of moulds and their production of aflatoxins if not dried properly. Aflatoxins can be highly toxic, and are among the most potent known natural carcinogens, particularly affecting the liver. Aflatoxins in copra cake or meal, fed to animals, can be passed on in milk or meat, leading to human illnesses.
The annual world-wide production of coconuts from 2000 to 2018 was about 61.86 million metric tons (1). Because of the low income earned on the world market from coconut products, around 50% of palms are now senile (well over 60 years old) (2), since there is no motivation to replant. Coconut groves are run down, with nuts and old trees lying where they fall, encouraging plant disease and insect pests.
With fluctuating copra prices, farmers only harvest their nuts when prices are high or when they are in desperate need of cash. For many remote islands with plenty of coconuts, copra is still a risky venture because of the infrequency of shipping services.
Many farmers consider it a form of slavery.
The journey of the copra from farm to mill is interesting. After drying, the copra is rammed into hessian sacks. When full, these sacks weigh around 80kg which comes from 400 to 500 coconuts. The full sacks are transported by canoe or road (if available) to a local district centre that has a wharf and a copra buyer/trader. The sacks are weighed and stored under cover until a coastal cargo vessel calls into the wharf. The full sacks are then lugged into the vessel’s hold to be taken on to an export port. Here the sacks are weighed again (they lose oil and weight in storage and in the holds of the local trading vessels) and then emptied onto a concrete slab in a warehouse to be pushed and shoved by bulldozers onto large tarpaulin sheets which are lifted by crane from their corners and dumped as bulk loose cargo into the hold of an international bulk cargo vessel for transport to a large industrial oil mill — often in Europe or Asia.
Copra oil extraction requires large-scale, high-pressure, expensive, energy-intensive equipment.
Unhygienic copra means that the resultant oil is normally of low quality - putrid, smelly, toxic, brown in colour - with a Free Fatty Acid (FFA) level of well above 3%, while 0.2% is recommended by the International Coconut Community (ICC) for virgin coconut oil (3). FFA is a key measure of the rancidity of oil.
Consequently, copra oil requires refining, bleaching and deodorising (RBD) to create a commercially acceptable product. The conventional refining process uses hydrochloric acid, solvents and steam to strip out the contaminants. Some residual solvents remain in the oil. The process also removes the natural volatiles and antioxidants that give virgin coconut oil its unique flavour and aroma. The total process from farm to refined oil can take many months.
In stark contrast, within one hour of opening the nut, virgin coconut oil is pressed using the DME process.
The resultant pure unadulterated and health-giving virgin coconut oil has no need of further processing but is ready to be consumed immediately.
(2) Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations – Non-Forest Tree Plantations
(3) International Coconut Community Standard for Quality for Virgin Coconut Oil