Samoa's economy riding the wave of coconut trend

Amid Australia's declining foreign aid budget, DFAT is looking to alternative methods of improving outlooks in Pacific nations desperate for assistance, with a new 'aid-to-trade' program.

They're a staple in the Samoan kitchen - each week, households around its islands use dozens of coconuts for cooking.

But they're also a lucrative export product.

Edwin Tamasese is the founder of coconut oil producing business, Coconut Cluster.

He told SBS News coconuts are becoming popular again, despite an ongoing debate on the health impacts of saturated fats.

“That whole science is changing, which means that this crop that died off in the 80s because of the medical establishment overall saying that saturated fats were bad for you, so we lost these big markets and these are all coming back into vogue now," he said.

Mr Tamasese is one man behind what he calls an "economic revolution" in Samoa.

He created his coconut oil business to help empower locals and give back to the broader community.

“We could see that the economy wasn't really in a position where it should be," he said.

"We were about $400 million short of where we should have been, for getting our GDP right.

“So we were looking at how we could translate things into positives, get our agriculture back up to where it should be, and get the economy back to where it needed to be.”

For him, it’s a commitment to lifting communities out of poverty.

In addition to the 16 locals directly employed, Coconut Cluster pays some 200 farmers above fair trade rates. And there are hopes to increase staff numbers.

That initiative has been helped along by an $80,000 investment - the first private investment as part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's 'aid-to-trade' program, aimed at supporting indigenous business growth in Pacific nations reliant on our declining foreign aid budget. 

Anthea Smits, from non-profit social investment consultant, The Difference Incubator, is helping the government identify businesses. So far, about 80 have been evaluated, with a second private investment imminent.

“Traditionally, aid and development has been a deep dark hole that money gets poured into. What we're looking at is sustainability. And how we can stimulate economic development, alongside aid and development,” Ms Smits said.

"We can do good and make money, and those two things can work together."

The agriculture industry has traditionally been strong in the Pacific, with significant opportunities in coffee and cocoa as well.

But the region is vulnerable to destructive weather, and Ms Smits said planning around Mother Nature is vital.

“When Cyclone Pam came through, more mature crops got wiped out, but the younger crops were fine, and so we're experimenting in that particular project with how we can actually have crops at different ages,” she said.

Location is also a challenge, but Mr Tamasese doesn't see it that way.

“We're geographically isolated, which we thought this is actually a benefit, because we're away from many of the industrial pollutants which are causing issues all over the world,” he said.

For him, redeveloping crops to meet market demand is one big step towards self-determining the Pacific's future.