A fresh approach to coconut industry development

Amid the rosy reports on the economy’s expansion in 2012, one senses uneasiness and even dismay over the lack of growth in jobs and incomes as well as the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

A particularly worrying scenario is playing out in the countryside. Take the case of the predominantly coconut-producing areas, which account for around a quarter of the country’s population. Around five years ago, the price of copra was at the 50-pesos-per-kilo level. Coconut farmers were ecstatic.

Today, the price hovers around the 10-peso mark.

Given a national production average of 1,000 kilos of copra in one hectare of coconut land, a typical farm family is currently earning about P10,000 a year. That’s about P833 a month, or less than P30 per day! Even if some intercropping and side jobs enable the doubling of a family’s daily income to P60, that amount will still not suffice to keep body and soul together.

This dire situation need not, and should not, prevail.

For one thing, the coconut levy funds have been freed after many years of litigation. Some P70 billion are now held in trust by the national treasury for the benefit of the coconut farmers and the entire coconut industry.

This huge resource, coupled with innovative approaches to develop the industry, can bring about a radical transformation in the coconut sector.

An idea that has been gaining ground is that farmers should no longer focus on copra as their main product. The argument is that reliance on copra and its main derivative – crude coconut oil – is a prescription for perpetuating the poverty and joblessness in coconut areas. This is not only because coconut oil is a minor player and price taker in the global market for vegetable oils, but also because so many other valuable parts and features of the coconut are being ignored and wasted.
One initiative has been dubbed by some as the “fresh coconut” (FRESCO) industry development approach. Unlike in the traditional set-up, where farmers concentrate on just producing dried coconut meat, the FRESCO model will empower the coconut farmer by developing and processing the coconut in its entirety.

Out of the coconut husk will emerge durable plant pots, anti-soil erosion nets, and soil conditioning peat. The coconut shell will be the raw material for activated carbon. Water from the mature coconut is a rich source of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Coconut farmers and their families should be encouraged to drink it or use it in for their cooking needs. The water from the mature coconut can also be processed into natural sports/isotonic beverages more nutritious than the synthetic drinks now monopolizing the market. Alternatively, evaporated coconut water yields an equally nutritious concentrate that is tastier than premium soy or oyster sauce.

Furthermore, 30-40% of the white liquid (called “gata”) resulting from squeezed coconut meat can be separated as fresh or virgin coconut oil, which can be used for cooking, beauty and health care, among others. In turn, skimmed coconut milk can be made into delicious lactose-free beverages, ice cream, butter, cheese and other dairy products. The residual “sapal” or coconut flour can be mixed with wheat flour for baking.

Under the FRESCO model, these various by-products from the whole coconut will be produced by a national network of farmer-owned, village or municipal level processing plants. It will not be unrealistic to project that farmers’ incomes and job opportunities will multiply many times. Utilizing the coconut levy funds now in government’s hands for this purpose will therefore be money wisely invested for the sustained benefit of coconut farmers and the entire Filipino people.

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