Why we do it
Empower people, bring hope and erase poverty.
The Tree of Life
Dr Dan was first exposed to the coconut industry in Sri Lanka in 1976 and was left amazed by the palm itself: That it should produce regular bunches of large fruit all year round; that it had a lifespan akin to that of a healthy human. The fruit itself could be divided into a wide range of products: the husk could be made into coir fibre products; the shell into tools, ornaments, charcoal and activated carbon. Then there was the nutritious water followed by the flesh which held delicious milk, cream, and oil. You can also gather sweet nectar or toddy from the young flowers (inflorescence), and the wood of retired trees can be made into lumber for building materials. The fronds are plaited into mats, wall dividers, screens and useful baskets, as well as providing thatching for roofs. The coconut truly is ‘the tree of life’!
Copra Slave Trade
However, Dr Dan was shocked at how poor most coconut farmers and their communities were, working in appalling conditions to turn the beautiful clean white flesh of a mature coconut into smoky, dirty, rancid, copra. Often children were used for this work and the conditions were akin to slavery. Copra was (and is) traded internationally in a very unstable market, often sold at very low prices to large copra mills. There the copra is pressed into rivers of putrid, dark brown oil and then converted into a golden odourless final product by a refining, bleaching and deodorising (RBD) process. RBD coconut oil is primarily used in the cosmetics industry and for soap and detergents.
Photograph by Sean Davey
Photograph by Sean Davey
At the Village Level
This led to a three-month sabbatical in Sri Lanka where Dr Dan focussed his research on the actual and potential economics of “multi-storey” cropping with a focus on the coconut industry. He developed a computer package called MULBUD (standing for Multi-crop and Multi-time Budgeting.) Later it dawned on Dan that the major problems of the relative poverty in the coconut industry had less to do with farming systems and much more to do with the products that were being produced.
The major outcome of Dr Dan’s later research was the development of a process whereby smallholder farmers could by-pass the copra industry and produce high quality Virgin Coconut Oil themselves on a farm or in a village. This oil could be flowing within one hour of opening a coconut! In 1994, with the support of four friends,Kokonut Pacific Australia was established to develop and commercialise the “Direct Micro Expelling” (DME®) process. This all contributed to Dr Dan Etherington being awarded Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2008.
The Ultimate Sustainable Resource
The coconut world wraps itself around the equatorial regions of the globe. The coconut is ubiquitous in the coastal regions of the tropics. It is not just a pretty and iconic palm but the sustainable mainstay of island communities which are the custodians of endangered cultures, reefs and rain forests. It is the lavish provider of a remarkable range of products. To many folk around the world it is indeed the ‘Tree of Life’.
Coconut Palms are the ultimate ‘sustainable resource’: living up to 100 years with productivity of about 60 years. Producing a new bunch of coconuts every month, one healthy palm over a period of 50 years can produce 4,000-5,000 nuts, which translates into 700-900kg of coconut oil.
Not surprisingly, rural families, subsistence and smallholder farmers love the coconut palm for its abundant, constant and reliable provision of good food. It is primarily for this reason that some 90% of all the coconuts in the world are owned and managed on smallholdings (less than five hectares) rather than on large plantations.
Setting up village-based production like “Direct Micro Expelling” (DME®) builds businesses where people live. This minimises migration (urban drift), employs people fairly, and develops social capital in a sustainable way.