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Coconut the New Sexy: Anglophone Caribbean awakens to exploit new market and tourism opportunities

Sales of coconut water is slated to grow from US$1.36 billion market in 2014 to US$4 billion in 2019. Leading global brand manufacturers such as the Coca Cola Co., Pepsi Co. and Red Bull GmbH, as well as niche players such as Vita Coco have driven product and market development.” (Technavio, 2015).

Coconuts have long been a tropical agricultural product exploited principally for the oil pressed out of copra, the dried kernel of the nut.  However, coconut oil was characterized as “bad” in the 1970s for being high in saturated fat and fell out of vogue.  Other vegetable oils such as canola, rapeseed, soybean, and castor oil displaced coconut oil. Accordingly, copra prices declined and production fell as fewer investments were made in coconut plantations. Plantations aged, pests and diseases took hold, many trees fell during hurricanes, and productivity declined. Only coconut water was widely commercialized but largely limited to local markets because of its perishability and limited investment in preservation and packaging technologies.

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Employees of Roosters Pomeroon Coconut Company Offering Product  – Guyana Coconut Festival Sat. 22nd, 2016

The coconut, a drupe over 4,000 years old, has been called the “tree of life” because there are thirty-six known applications and in turn sixty-seven different uses alone just for coconut oil, one of its byproducts.  Everything from this tree can be used–the nuts, the water, the trunk, the husks, the roots, and the fronds.

The traditional global value chain is largely divided into three separate strands:

(1) coconut food chain (edible meat, milk, flour, sugar, wine, vinegar, toddy);

(2) coconut water chain; and

(3) coconut oil used as a feedstock for manufacturing oleochemicals which in turn can be processed for use as cooking oils, lubricants, cosmetics, biofuels,  soaps, and pharmaceuticals.

Nontraditional value chains are of less importance but are emerging and they focus on :

  • palm fronds for the production of handicrafts, bags, hats, roofing materials, and geotextile ;
  • coir (fibre) for the fabrication of mats, mattresses, insulation panels, upholstery stuffing, planting media; and combined with recycled plastic to produce roofing materials;
  • trunks (coconut wood) for the fabrication of floorings, paneling, jambs, window frames, stairs, logs, and patio stepping stones; and
  • coconut shells for the production of charcoal and activated carbon which in turn can used for fuel and filtration processes.
  • roots for natural dyes.
  • husks can that be burnt as biomass for fuel

Figure 1 is a diagram of all the many functions and uses of the coconut

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Figure 1: Coconut Value Chain and Main End Market Uses

Source:  Abdulsamad, 2016.

Over the last decade and a half, several articles in the popular and medical press have touted the coconut as a “superfood”.  Coconut fatty acids are now attributed to having a slew of medicinal benefits.

First, coconut oil has medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that are metabolized in a different and superior way compared to long-chain triglycerides  (LCTs) that are more commonly found in Western diets. MCTs are associated with higher expenditure energies compared to the same amount of LCT, which can help with reductions in abdominal fat. Second, lauric acids also found in coconut fats helps to fight a number of pathogens, viruses, and fungi, and have positive treatment effects on patients with mild Alzheimer’s.  Third and lastly, coconut water is a low-calorie natural beverage packed with electrolytes and potassium that has been linked to reductions in blood pressure.    As a result, consumer preferences for the consumption of coconut products have changed. Global demand increased 700 percent between 2008 and 2014.[1]  Since demand is outstripping supply, prices have been rising.  The price of coconut oil by the metric ton has increased 50% since 2013 and 35% just between September 2015 and September 2016. See Figure 2.

The price of coconut water is averaging US$1.50 per serving in wealthier, temperate weather countries when as recent as 2004 coconut water was hardly available.  However, there is a significant gap between farm gate and end user prices.  For example, in coconut producing countries, coconut farmers receive from US 9 to 25 cents per water nut with each nut yielding between 8 to 14 ounces of liquid.

Figure 2: Rising Coconut Oil Prices

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Source:  Bloomberg http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-09/just-when-the-world-craves-coconuts-the-caribbean-s-running-out

The Caribbean used to export appreciable amounts of copra in decades past and had much larger areas cultivated than now. Now, in the Caribbean, only the Dominican Republic ranks in the top twenty producing countries, ranked number 17th in 2015, producing 286,934 tons of coconuts.[2] The next important Caribbean coconut producer is Guyana with 11,331 hectares cultivated, approximately 1,000 farmers, and US$4.6 million in export sales as of 2015.

In the face of positive market conditions, the Caribbean, seems slow to respond to these opportunities.  Why is this so?  The main reasons are

  1. Shortage of high yielding seedlings
  2. Fragmented value chains
  3. Aged and low -yielding plantations
  4. Need for better husbandry and management practices
  5. Need to better treat and manage pest and diseases such as red mites lethal yellowing, and red ring
  6. Need for better processing technology
  7. Need for better phytosanitary controls, quality assurance, and certifications
  8. Lack of access to formal finance

On October 21-23, 2016, Guyana hosted its First Coconut Festival, sponsored jointly by the Ministries of Business and Agriculture. The purpose of the festival was to promote a revival of interest in the sector, celebrate social traditions, art, and folkways associated with the coconut, as well as promote tourism related activities in the main coconut producing regions of the country. Over 3,000 persons attended the three-day event. The festival featured technical presentations from experts from Brazil, Mexico, India, Barbados, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Indonesia speaking of markets, husbandry techniques, breeding, and plant diseases; business networking opportunities; artistic, fashion, and musical presentations; exhibits of machinery used in coconut processing; vending of coconut related products and food items; and fun activities for children.  The festival, hopefully, will be repeated and serve as a catalyst to unite stakeholders and spark concerted action to develop the coconut sector and tourism products.

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Vendor of Coconut Cosmetics, Guyana Coconut Festival,  Oct. 21, 2016

Guyanese coconut stakeholders have formed a group and have identified common constraints and drafted a road map to foster a public-private partnership to address those identified problems. Larger plantation owners and tour operators also saw the possibility of creating a Coconut Route featuring boat rides, walks through plantations, birding, and tasting of coconut inspired cuisine, and lodging on working farms.

Hopefully, coconut stakeholders throughout the region can follow the lead of Guyana and begin to mobilize and take advantage of this new opportunity. The Caribbean is geographically located much closer to the major high- income consumption markets of coconut byproducts—North America and Western Europe— than the major Asian producers but have low levels of production and unreliable supply conditions. If the Caribbean can solve some of the aforementioned problems it may emerge competitive.

References

Abdulsamad, Ajmal, 2016.  “Connecting the World Through Regional Value Chains:  Partnership     Opportunities in Coconut Value Chain for Small Caribbean Economies”.  Final Report. International Trade Center, Geneva, Switzerland.

Technavio. 2015. Global Coconut Water Market 2015-2019.

[1] Source: http://agreport.bz/2015/08/coconut-production-and-market-opportunities-formation-of-stakeholders-platform-committee/

[2] Source: http://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-world-leaders-in-coconut-production.html

Featured Image : Models displaying coconut fashions—dresses, bags, hats.

All photos taken by: Mark Wenner

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