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No Free Lunch

Poor man’s product

/ 04:05 AM September 07, 2021

Coconut, as I wrote last week, need not be the “lazy man’s crop” if we move farmers away from the traditional product mainly derived from it, namely, smoke-dried copra for processing into coconut oil. From historical experience, smoke-dried copra may well be called the “poor man’s product,” given the wild fluctuations its price has historically seen, leading to similar volatility in coconut farmers’ incomes. Given the nature of coconut, the crop can well be a means for creating wealth for our rural folk, rather than a path to impoverishment as it has been for so long. But we need to harness scientific innovation, product diversification, collectivization of producers into co-ops, and strengthened institutional and multisectoral coordination and cooperation to effect this dramatic transformation.

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We are not lacking in the first. We’ve done much research to raise the productivity of coconut trees, both in the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) and in state universities, foremost being the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). Beyond productivity improvement through breeding and farm management, our agricultural engineers have developed promising technologies for better processing of the coconut into oil and other products. As always, it’s in the application and commercialization of new technologies where we’ve fallen flat. I’ve heard allegations that part of the resistance against innovation and product diversification comes from the well-entrenched industrial interests themselves. Ironically, many innovations and technologies we develop here find wider application for great benefit elsewhere; I’ve written of similar instances in other contexts before.

A story shared by Dr. Reynaldo Lantin, a respected retired UPLB agricultural engineer with international experience, is illustrative. In our Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines email group, he narrated: “(There is a) high-value product from coconut that may not have demand locally, but is a common snack fare in South Asia … In 1993, while in Western Samoa, I read about Singapore sourcing container-loads of this product from the South Pacific Islands. It is similar to copra but processed differently than our own copra that needs extra processing including chemical refining into coconut oil. I’m referring to edible copra which may be hygienically and green-energy processed by rain-sheltered or bubble solar drying resulting in smoke- and mold-free white copra. I felt elated and proud, as former dean of the UPLB College of Engineering and Agro-industrial Technology, to see an adaptation of (also) former dean Dr. Ernie Lozada’s white copra dryer being manufactured in Western Samoa, and it was actually called ‘UPLB copra dryer.’ Their modification made the edible white copra free of smoke tar and with proper handling and packaging, (suitable) for export.

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“I also observed bigger scale production in an ingenious edible copra drying house in Western Samoa, with a design similar to Filipino traditional 1950s wooden houses. I was again elated and proud to learn that the designer of the copra drying house was a Filipino consultant of the Food and Agriculture Organization … May I thus propose that PCA explore the market for Philippine edible copra, perhaps assisted by our commercial attachés not only in South Asia, but also in EU and US.”

My friend Dr. Ernie Lozada, the engineer mentioned as the developer of the white copra technology, is part of the team crafting the newest roadmap for the industry, dubbed Coco-FIRM (Coconut Farmers’ and Industry Roadmap). He hopes that white copra production, a technology accessible to organized farmer groups, can finally gain traction. And there are many more high-value products now finding wide commercial appeal in the world market, like coconut water, virgin coconut oil, coco sugar, coco coir products, cocochemicals, coco diesel, and many more.

It cannot be overemphasized that the most important step is to plot a bold new vision and set clear targets to deliberately move farmers away from excessive dependence on the poor man’s product, and instead make coconut a wealth creator for rural Filipinos.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, Coconut Industry, coconut products, No Free Lunch, poor man's product
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