Omar Dabbagh reports from Honiara, Solomon Islands
Under the hot sun of the Solomon Islands capital Honiara, the team at Kokonut Pacific are hard at work.
The coconut processing centre has been in operation for 25 years.
The venture aims to extract and utilise as much from a coconut as possible to use in a range of products. Soaps and oils are its signature items for sale, created using a coconut press, which makes oil from scratch within an hour.
An employee of Kokonut Pacific in Solomon Islands dries the flesh of a coconut before it is hand-pressed into oil. Source: SBS News/Omar Dabbagh
The technology is an Australian invention, requiring half a dozen people to operate different stations. The coconut is first sliced, its flesh then ground and dried over high heat, before the oil is collected, filtered, and sent for packaging.
Kokonut Pacific’s managing director Richard Etherington told SBS News it is a simple process, with the press now set up in countries across the Pacific and parts of Asia and the Caribbean.
"We've sold equipment into lots of countries, started off in Fiji, and then in Samoa. We've done work in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, all of those places have some of our equipment.”
"With our DME (direct micro-expelling) press and the technology that we have there, we're able to set up processing in a village and set up a business where there hasn't been one before, and generate cash.”
Helping remote communities
Kokonut Pacific started in 1994 when it first developed its DME press for processing coconuts, creating a business opportunity to create virgin coconut oil in the most remote parts of the South Pacific.
From the company’s headquarters in Queanbeyan on the NSW-ACT border, Mr Etherington explains communities purchase the press and pay set-up costs - roughly $10,000 to $15,000 in total. The costs are often subsidised by local governments or NGOs.
A Kokonut Pacific craftsman in Solomon Islands HQ creates bowls out of coconut shells, which are sold as well as cutlery made out of coconut tree bark. Source: SBS News/Omar Dabbagh
Once operations are up and running, villagers are then paid by Kokonut Pacific for what they produce, which Mr Ethertington says provides a much-needed cash injection in remote provinces where paid employment is rare.
"There's really no formal employment available in most of these communities so the only opportunity they have if they're after cash is to sell some of their vegetables, or sell some fish in the local market,” he said.
“We really are empowering, and enabling thriving rural coconut communities and that's just a joy really, to be able to make a significant impact, to make a difference in what we do, too, to be the brand that changes lives ... it’s very satisfying."
In the Solomon Islands, the positive impacts of the DME press are being felt the most, as it is used in more than 50 villages across the country.
Twenty thousand litres of coconut oil are exported a month, half of which goes to Australia, with the remainder shipped across Asia and Europe.
A range of coconut oils by Kokonut Pacific, which are created from scratch and packaged within a few hours. Source: SBS News/Omar Dabbagh
"Overall, there's hundreds and hundreds of people directly employed and thousands in the villages benefiting from their community having cash coming into it,” Mr Etherington said.
"I have passion to do this work because [it is] touching the lives of people in the rural communities,” said the project's technology manager Wilson Kikolo.
“It’s not about money, it’s not about looking after myself, but looking after the community as a whole; how can we empower them? How can we improve their livelihood, or remove them from poverty levels so they can be prosperous as well?"
“Traditionally the main income has been through copra, which is dried coconut, but the price for that has been very low and right at the moment it's hit rock bottom … [while] we’ve been able to get something like a five-fold improvement in return for the coconut."
But it is not just what is inside the coconut that the venture is utilising. Among the many other uses of the outside is a type of charcoal that acts as a cheaper and safer alternative to firewood. It can also be used to make bowls and cutlery.
Kokonut Pacific extracts and utilises as much from coconuts as possible to create a range of products, enabling business opportunities for remote communities. Source: SBS News/Omar Dabbagh
Supervisor of the cosmetics production team Maureen Taro says the company also creates career opportunities for women in the Solomon Islands, where gender discrimination is a systemic issue.
"I think this work is very important to the Solomon Islands, especially women,” she said.
"We have a simple method to enable women to do work in the village level, so women can make coconut oil, women can sell coconut oil to earn money for a village, women can sell soap in the village.
"Women have been left out in the village. I want to see women have the power to do things. It’s not just men, women can do it."
Omar Dabbagh travelled to the Solomon Islands with the assistance of Plan International.