Caption: A coconut being split in a typical village and urban scene of the Pacific.-Picture courtesy of Origins Pacific (www.originspacific.com.fj)
By ANNE MOORHEAD
Vuna village, at the southern end of Taveuni Island, is a typical Fijian village. The colourful houses sit neatly beside the lagoon, while coconut plantations stretch inland into the distance. In the village, kids play while adults fish or tend their dalo fields. It is a scene repeated across many islands of Fiji.
But Vuna has something most Fijian villages do not have, which is making a big difference to the people's lives and livelihoods. It has a coconut oil mill. Set up in 2006 by Origins Pacific Limited, the mill employs eight women and two men from the village. They and their families now have regular income, and about 17 children are in full-time school as a direct result. They no longer depend on credit at the village store to buy their sugar, flour and other essentials, and all can now afford electricity in their homes.
"Every week I have some money," says Misa Likuvoivoi, who works at the mill. "With farming it took nine months before I earned anything. I can now pay the school fees for my two daughters, and buy their schoolbooks."
"The factory really helps us,' adds Leba Vosaicake, who works as supervisor in the mill. "It gives us steady income, which we can't get from farming or fishing."
Community-based oil production means that the people get a fair deal for their resources and their work. By processing the oil on Taveuni, the value of each coconut to the community increases from just eight cents (if it was sold for copra) to 45 cents. As well as the mill workers who draw weekly wages, suppliers who select and bring the best coconuts to the mill for processing also receive a premium.
Peni Drodrolagi and Bole Digitaki are the directors of Origins Pacific. "We produce some of the finest, most natural virgin coconut oil in the world," says Mr Drodrolagi. "And the bonus is, because we use simple technology, the mills can easily be run by the communities themselves."
Community support and participation have been vital to the success of this enterprise. "The chiefs and people have shared our vision and supported this mill from the beginning," says Mr Drodrolagi.
Origins has a second mill in Vunuku village on Moala Island in the Lau Group and plans to build more, on other islands, as the demand for virgin coconut oil increases.
"The market for cosmetics based on virgin coconut oil is already fairly well-developed, but the market for virgin coconut oil as an edible oil is still underdeveloped," explains Mr Drodrolagi. "However, as the health and nutritional benefits of this oil become better known, we are expecting to see an increased demand, both in Fiji and overseas."
Studies have shown that virgin coconut oil in the diet may help protect against heart disease, cancer, diabetes and many other 'lifestyle' diseases. It can also help fight infections caused by both bacteria and viruses due to the high concentration of a fatty acid called lauric acid. There are also claims it can help with weight loss through stimulating the thyroid which speeds up metabolism.
It is easy to replace other cooking oils and fats with virgin coconut oil, for general frying or whenever a recipe calls for butter or margarine. Because of its delicate nutty flavour it makes delicious cakes and cookies. It also works very well in fruit shakes and smoothies.
Origins Pacific has been selling its virgin coconut oil through supermarkets in the Fijian capital Suva and has seen sales triple. "People are used to buying cheap, imported vegetable oils, but when they understand the benefits of virgin coconut oil, they realise it is worth the higher price," says Mr Drodrolagi. "We hope consumers will also appreciate the fair trade aspects, and that they are supporting rural communities when they buy this oil." Origins Pacific is currently working to get official fair trade accreditation for its products.
As the demand for virgin coconut oil increases, there will be no shortage of communities volunteering to provide a home for the next coconut oil mill. "Shipping routes are key," says Mr Drodrolagi. "Once the oil has been produced, we need to ship it back to Suva for bottling and selling. The Lomaiviti Group and Southern Lau Group are probably where we will go next, for that reason." For islands with few income-generating opportunities, a coconut oil mill will come as a blessing.
Anne Moorhead is a science writer and editor. She was commissioned by the European Union-funded Facilitating Agricultural Commodity Trade (FACT) project for this series of articles on virgin coconut oil. Implemented by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), the FACT project works to increase the volume, value and diversity of Pacific Island agricultural and forestry export products.