I was thinking recently about my time in the South Pacific and decided to use the Internet Archive Way Back Machine to see if I could find the website I created from scratch when I worked in the region in 1999-2000. Sure enough, this wonderful “machine” pulled up the defunct Canada-South Pacific Ocean Development Program (C-SPOD) website and I was able to take a trip down memory lane.

Making Coconut Oil

Saoluafata Beach, Samoa. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

On my first trip to Samoa in early 2000, I had the chance to visit a Canada Fund project in the tiny community of Saoluafata Beach. It was an amazing day spent dodging pigs and chickens while travelling far too fast in a pickup truck on claustrophobic dirt paths and along scenic hairpin highways that hugged the rugged coast. The women from the Women in Business project that I travelled with, Aiga Malaulau and Adi Tafuna’i, were amazing.

I often think of them and their project when I see fair trade coconut oil products at the Body Shop and in the grocery store. When I recently took a look at their site it turns out their cold-pressed coconut oil is part of the Body Shop’s line! When I picked up their Spa Wisdom Polynesia Monoi Miracle Oil and Cocoa Butter Body Butter I was actually supporting a fair trade project that I’ve visited! It sometimes feels like a very small world, doesn’t it?

Making Coconut Oil

Coconuts are split open using a pointed stake. On the ground (left) are coconuts with their exocarp (outer husk) still intact. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

For anyone who has ever wondered about the people in developing countries making these fair trade products, take a look at my original article and photographs from that trip to Samoa:

SAOLUAFATA BEACH, Samoa — Standing in a tin roofed fale, Aiga Malaulau and her extended family work silently six days a week, hacking, grinding, spreading, and squeezing what is essentially liquid money from piles of coconuts heaped under a nearby tree.

Pressed and strained through a micro sieve and then poured into a plastic bucket, the pure virgin coconut oil from Saoluafata is destined for manufacturers in Australia and New Zealand who will turn the Samoan oil into fancy bath soaps, shampoos, sunscreens, mosquito repellent, and even cooking oil.

For each litre of oil Aiga and her family produce in their tiny village next to the Pacific Ocean, a 30-minute drive outside the capital of Apia, they receive three Samoan tala ($1.42 Cdn). On an average day, they manufacture 1 ½ to two buckets, approximately 40 litres.

Three years ago, the Malaulaus were chosen by the Apia-based Women in Business Foundation as one of five Samoan families to take part in a coconut oil production project. The goal is to help provide employment for three to four people per operation in rural areas lacking private business and job opportunities.

“It is very hard to find work in Samoa, and in the rural villages it is just impossible,” says Women in Business director Adi Tafuna’i. “With this project, village families will be able to earn sufficient cash for their daily needs and not need to be dependent on remittances sent from families living overseas.”

Making Coconut Oil

The ground coconut is spread evenly over the dryer to remove excess moisture. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Aiga Malaulau agrees. “We get money from it and our extended family starting getting money from it by collecting the nuts,” she explains as she evenly distributes ground coconut over a dryer. “Most of them had no jobs.”

Since 1996, Women in Business has purchased and placed dryers and oil presses with two rural families on Upolo and three on Savai’i. The equipment, worth approximately $15,000 Australian for each site, along with two vehicles and mobile phones for monitoring the sites, has been purchased with the support of Canada Fund.

The fund provides financial support for small-scale projects, with an emphasis on helping people to help themselves, in developing countries around the world. To be accepted, the projects must meet basic needs; promote human rights, especially the participation of women; improve infrastructure; protect the environment; and support small business development. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) provides the cash for Canada Fund, which is administered in the Pacific through the Canadian High Commissions in New Zealand and Australia.

Although using abundant supplies of coconuts for copra and oil is nothing new for the developing Polynesian nation, the family-based method of production is a departure from larger — and less successful — community run models, Tafuna’i says.

“After three years of trying to set up small businesses in the rural villages of Samoa, we found that there were just no markets for our products,” she says. “We decided to look for income generating activities that could eventually cater to an export market.”

Making Coconut Oil

Pure coconut oil is cold pressed out of the dried coconut. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

A visit to a handicraft fair in Fiji and the introduction of new coconut oil production technology provided Women in Business with their ideal village business. However, initial training in Fiji — where presses were put into villages — didn’t seem to be working. Based on their experience in Samoa, the foundation realized that families better manage any income-generating activity than communities.

“Tonnes of coconuts in Samoa aren’t being used,” says Vitolia Tauai, a Women in Business field worker. “We decided the rural people should have the benefits and the presses, instead of business people.”

The production is closely monitored by the foundation, which has a contract with each family. If a family does not make a sincere effort, it loses its equipment. “We took a dryer away from a family because they weren’t working and gave it to another village,” she says. “If they fail, we take the dryers away.”

Although unemployment is high in Samoa, not everyone wants to work because they have become dependent on remittances sent by their families working overseas. “It’s not good for them,” Tauai says. “It’s spoiling them. We try to make them think the remittances won’t go on forever. There is money around in our environment.”

Not only are villagers taking advantage of an unused resource virtually lying at their feet, the entire process is environmentally friendly, she says. Coconut meat is collected and used as feed for pigs and cattle, the husks are used for firewood to operate the dryers, and the coconut shells can be used for jewelry.

However, making coconut oil is hard, hot work with relatively little to show for the effort at the end of the day. Working six days a week for about eight hours a day, the families collect coconuts, husk and split them, dry the ground coconut, and then squeeze the dried coconut through a press to produce the oil.

Known as cold pressing, the technique enables the villagers to make a product that retains all of its natural qualities, unlike copra oil which needs more processing before it can be used, Tafuna’i says.

A private company, independent of the foundation, is used to market and sell the oil. Producers pay the foundation a fee or its services and eventually it will receive a portion of any profits made by the exporting company for administrative needs. The oil is shipped on a monthly basis to a company in Australia, as well as to smaller markets in Hawaii and New Zealand. Other companies in the United States have also expressed interest, she says.

Making Coconut Oil

The finished product. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

“The project has been a huge success, insofar as production is concerned,” Tafuna’i says. “Our main problem has been in trying to market the oil. Coconut oil has always been associated with copra and people cannot relate to the price we are asking for our product.”

Plans are also in the works to double the value of the oil. The foundation is presently working with AusAID to have the land where the coconuts are collected organically certified. If that is successful, producers will collect seven Samoan tala for a litre of oil, a 130 per cent increase. New Zealand is also funding a feasibility study and a technical evaluation of the oil to produce other value added products.

“I believe that coconut oil produced by our method can be a large industry for Samoa, once the oil has been recognized as equal, if not better, than olive oil,” says Tafuna’i. “It is perfect for small island countries because small amounts of the product will bring in large earnings.”

Founded in 1991 by a group of seven women, the Women in Business Foundation originally catered to women members. After the devastation of Hurricanes Ofa and Val in 1990 and 1991 and the taro blight in 1993, which devastated Samoa’s staple food and main export crop, the foundation shifted its focus. Now, it concentrates on helping rural women and youth by giving them opportunities for income generation by using the products of their environments.

This article originally appeared in the September 2000 issue of Tok Blong Pasifik published by the Pacific Peoples’ Partnership in Canada.


© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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