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Dan’s Coconut Odyssey

Sri Lanka has been called the land of "serendipity". This means a surprising, delightful, unexpected discovery. So it was with me in 1976 when I first visited that island nation. I was there to attend an international rubber conference but took the opportunity to visit all the perennial crop research institutes: tea, rubber and coconut. I also visited farmers and down-stream processors. The monocrop tea and rubber industries with their single products held few surprises but my exposure to the coconut industry stunned me. I was amazed, fascinated, surprised and shocked.

I was amazed by the palm itself: that it should produce regular bunches of large fruit all year round; that it had a life span akin to that of a healthy human. The fruit itself could be divided into a wide range of products; the husk could be made into coir fibre products; the shell into tools, ornaments, charcoal and activated carbon. Then there was the nutritious juice followed by the flesh which had delicious milk, cream, oil and — potentially — desiccated coconut. Then I watched with fascination as a man climbed a palm to gather the sweet nectar or toddy from the young flowers (inflorescence). A little later I took time out to relax at a beautiful resort where the décor had a coconut theme. All the structural pillars were made of polished coconut trunks. It was stunning.

It was with a glowing view of the bounteous liberality of the coconut palm that I visited a number of coconut farms. Here I was surprised to find that the farmers were relatively poor. This seemed strange given the number of different products they had to sell. I also noticed a lot of empty land under the palms.

I next visited the down-stream processing. The conversion of the beautiful clean white flesh of a mature coconut into smoky, dirty, copra puzzled me but I took it as a necessary evil when I visited a large copra mill and was shown the rivers of dark brown oil that flowed from the copra and into refining, bleaching and deodorising (RBD) processes that resulted in a lovely golden, odourless, final product. I visited sites making coconut-shell charcoal. The smoke, dirt and evidence of child labour here and at sites making and weaving coir products out of coconut husk suggested a tropical version of the "dark and satanic mills" of the industrial revolution two centuries earlier in England.

I was deeply shocked. This experience worried my psyche. A year later it burst out in a poem contrasting these conditions with the casino culture that was spreading so rapidly in the west. This is what I wrote:

 

The silent sickly dawn 
Signalled the return of stinking sweat
And rust-red dust of coir husk.
Soon, too soon, cockerel calls
And the clink and clank of cattle bells
Are drowned by the all-pervading,
Slow, persisting, pounding, mind-numbing 
‘Thump’, ’thump’ of diesel turning
Belts of power
And wheels of life.

Wheels turning, turning,
Sharp teeth tearing, tearing
Husk upon husk,
Combing, combing
Fibre upon fibre,
Bristle upon bristle,
Dust to dust.
Noisy, clanking, banging
Wheels of life.
Hands gripping, gripping …
Man sweats his way to his pay
of a rupee a day.

Half an orbit away
Where night still holds her sway,
Silent smooth wheels turn
With the roll of dice
Or the click of chips for a higher price.
Croupiers call
As fortunes rise and fall.
Hearts pound in anticipation
As, with hypnotic fascination,
Wheels are turning, turning,
Wheels slowing, slowing,
Hope upon hope,
Fear upon fear,
Smoke upon smoke,
Ashes to ashes.

Wheel of fortune
Or wheel of death?
Minds grabbing, grabbing,
Stomachs sinking, sinking,
Hope slipping, slipping.
Man sweats his fortune away 
before the dawn of another day.

Dan Etherington 27 December 1978

 

The year after I wrote this, I was privileged to have sabbatical leave from the Australian National University (ANU). During this time, my family and I spent three months in Sri Lanka where I focussed my research on the actual and potential economics of "multi-storey" cropping with particular concentration on the coconut industry. This led to the development of a computer package called MULBUD (standing for Multi-crop; Multi-time-period Budgeting) that allowed researchers and farm management advisors to work through strategies for more economic outcomes in complex "agroforestry" systems.

While the development of this package with skilled programmer, Peter Matthews, was an exciting activity, it gradually dawned on me that the major problems of the relative poverty in the coconut industry had less to do with farming systems and much more to do with the products that were being produced. My graduate students (who came primarily from the Asian tropics and the South Pacific islands) were my prime teachers and I took the lessons learnt into a fulltime research position - still at the ANU. To help ourselves make the transition, in 1986 my wife (Maureen) & I took "time out" to go on a retreat with Youth With a Mission (YWAM) in Hawaii.

Prior to our departure, in April 1986, cyclone Namu tore through the Solomon Islands. Namu devastated the rice fields on the plains of Guadalcanal, so much so that this industry has never recovered. Rice is now an entirely imported staple. That same month, the world price of the Solomons major export, copra (the dried flesh of the coconut) dropped to less than half its ‘normal’ price. Deaths in the country from malaria had increased rapidly. Population growth was much faster than the increase in national educational and medical services.

Having visited the Solomons a couple of years earlier, I really felt a burden for the country. I remember thinking that the country was “paralytic” and recalled the story of the crippled man brought to Jesus on a stretcher by four friends. Their way into the house was blocked by a crowd, but with a good dose of lateral thinking, they made a hole in the roof and lowered their friend through it to Jesus. I recall praying that maybe I could be used in some way as a friend of the Solomons to bring Christ’s healing to this nation — possibly through the “Tree of Life”, (the coconut palm) with its wide range of potential products.

On 'retreat' in Hawaii we regularly met in small groups to pray for one another. One day it came my turn for prayer and I said that I was looking for guidance as to whether I should make the South Pacific and the coconut industry a focus for my research on my return to the ANU. Somebody said that chapter 60 in the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament had a relevant message. We looked at this chapter and immediately two verses seemed to leap out at me as though highlighted. Verses 8 to 10a read as follows:

 ‘Who are these that float along like clouds, like doves returning to their nests?

Surely the people of the islands look to me; in the lead are the trading ships, bringing your sons from afar, with their silver and gold, to the honour of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendour.

Foreigners will rebuild your walls and their leaders will serve you.’

Isaiah 60: 8–10a (NIV)                

These few verses referred to so many things of relevance to the South Pacific: islands; trading ships; migration; remittances; wealth ("subsistence affluence"?); strong faith; and the role of foreigners in rebuilding the nations. At that time, in that place, in those circumstances, I took this as very specific "guidance".

On my return to the ANU I commenced work on two projects: the political economy of the modern Chinese tea industry and the coconut industry of the South Pacific. For the first project, I worked intensively with a colleague, Keith Forster, who was fluent in Mandarin. It was an exciting project which resulted in many academic papers and a book (Green Gold: The Political Economy of China's post-1949 Tea Industry, published by Oxford University Press in 1993).

The second project took longer to get off the ground as I went down many 'dead-ends' in trying to work out what was possible in the difficult circumstances of the South Pacific where logistics, the tyranny of distance, technology and capital constraints were all major hurdles. All the economic advice was that the islands should stick to exporting raw copra instead of attempting to produce coconut oil locally. This was because the few existing local copra mills were running into severe management problems. An attempt to build and operate a higher value-added desiccated coconut factory was a spectacular failure.

It took the visit to Mozambique in 1992  to break through my blinkers and push me to consider turning convention on its head. I believe that God led me in significant ways to develop what we call the Direct Micro Expelling (or DME) technology. It takes small-scale processing to the nuts rather than sending the nuts (as copra) to large factories overseas. Moving from concept to initial implementation took five years. We were often discouraged but then received a boost from those we were trying to help — the farmers.

Now, with DME, a farm family can produce pure virgin oil within one hour of opening a coconut. Four or five people can produce up 60 litres of oil per day from about 600 to 1200 coconuts (depending on the size of the nuts). We formed a Company, Kokonut Pacific, to commercialise the technology. We now have DME units in all Pacific island countries and many in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. However, implementation has been very difficult. As the news bulletins record, civil strife, coups and cyclones in Fiji, PNG, the Solomons and Samoa have caused them and us countless problems.

My many visits to the Solomon Islands were a mix of joy and frustration. The people were lovely to work with and their faith, prayer life and passion for Christ put me to shame. However, corruption, Government mismanagement, wanton logging of rainforests, and the breakdown of services were very depressing. The “paralytic” was getting sicker by the day! If the cripple was a paraplegic 18 years ago, by the time RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands) intervened in 2003, the country was truly quadriplegic!

Hope-filled hints

Our continuing links with the Solomons and the restoration of peace encouraged me and my colleagues to “have another go”. In September 2003 we started praying and planning and things began moving fast. We received a flood of phone calls, emails, faxes and letters from the Solomons asking for our DME technology. There were conferences in Canberra where we met key Christian leaders of peace initiatives. On flights, we just 'happened' to sit next to people with wide experience in the Solomons. Did all the unexpected enquiries and chance meetings happen just by coincidence?

For us, this all added up! We were encouraged; we were being prodded and prompted. So we booked our tickets. We flew to Honiara in February 2004. The encouragement continued on the flight when I found that I was sitting next to the Governor of the SI Central Bank. He is a courageous Christian who was under enormous pressure during “the troubles" and had just been reappointed to head the Bank. I had an unexpected & amazing 2 hour briefing during the flight!

As we moved around, there was certainly an air of hope. It was as if the nation was in the role of the prodigal son; coming to its senses and saying “I have sinned”. But, although there was hope, we also sensed a mood of helplessness. While there was deep gratitude for the aid from Australia, the European Union, New Zealand and many NGOs that were helping to rebuild schools, clinics, roads and wharfs, major concern was being expressed about how people were to pay school fees, or for medicines and fuel. As one aid official perceptively observed: "We are building pipes, but there is nothing flowing through them! Rural incomes are so depressed that folk have nothing with which to pay for the services offered by the facilities that we are rebuilding."

Our KP team thought that offering a project that could generate significant increases in rural incomes would make our visit highly relevant. We also found people desperate to find a productive use for their coconuts rather than reverting to the despised production of copra for export.

We had made prior plans to visit all the main funding agencies (no names!!). However, everywhere we turned, we got the same answer: "We have no facility from which to fund income-generating projects." We had already learnt from the Governor of the SI Central Bank that the Solomon Islands Development Bank was bankrupt. We found that the commercial banks will not lend outside of Honiara.

We felt we were carrying the paralytic but could find no way forward! We tried the front door, the windows, the back door – all with the same response. The problem we were faced with is one that most Solomon Islanders are faced with all the time: a non-existent rural banking structure. Lateral thinking was required.

One day in our daily devotions we were reading the passage in the Bible in 2 Kings 4 about the widow and her little bottle of oil.

What was God saying to us? What should we do? What was our “small bottle of oil”? None of us had the necessary finances, yet we seemed to be being told to “Use what you do have”.

  • A local Christian company had business & accounting skills and had a real prayer warrior. They had local knowledge, contacts and practical experience.
  • We had the technology, trainers and we had equipment in stock. We also had access to markets.
  • The Islanders had the coconuts, enthusiasm and the people to do the work.

The solution became obvious: we were to partner with the local company. We had a mutual and profound sense that “Now is the Time, do it!” They would provide the local management and we would provide the equipment and training for a project. Together we would work with local communities who had already approached us.

We moved rapidly to implement this decision. We shipped off eleven DME units, one for a training site in Honiara and ten for two other Provinces

Kokonut Pacific has undertaken to buy all the oil of export quality. This was a calculated risk but it was the quickest way to get cash trickling through the “pipes” to the rural areas. It is a step of faith on all our parts, but we trust that God is guiding us.

Principles of prayer

We were only in the Solomons for one week but not a day passed without us being involved in prayer meetings with Islanders. We were greatly blessed and encouraged by their faith and by their love. In a small way we felt that we were “Ambassadors of Hope”. Paul’s encouragement of the Philippians (4:6–9 The Message) is true:

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It is wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life … I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious — the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse … and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Thanks be to God.

Dr Dan Etherington

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