The Fabric of Fiji
Coconuts are a part of our life, coconuts are part of almost all Fijians life one way or another. We use it in food, we use it to make brooms and hats, we find the shade on a hot day, we enjoy a bou and we use the oil to take care of our body.
And when we want to get rid of the days stress we sit down on the front porch and watch the coconut palms swaying slowly in the breeze. It works best with the sea lapping gently in the background.
When Pacific Produce bought the Vunivasa Estate on Taveuni in May 1988 – a bit less than a year after the first Rabuka Coup – the coconuts were planted all the way down to the coast of the Tasman Straight running between Taveuni and Qamea Island. We had very little idea of how the coconut palm was an integrated part of the Fiji Fabric.
The coconuts had been planted in stages. The old ones along the coast were more than 120 years old. Further inland on the first plateau they were around 60 years old. At the next level the palms were 40 years old, and finally a block of 25 year old palms planted further up in the hills. The palms told their own history. It was beautiful.
The Copra Days
The product in those days was copra. the dried “meat” from the coconut. The copra was cut daily and loaded into a hot air dryer heated by burning husk and firewood, and dried over the following 24 hours. This was sold to our buyer who covered the whole island and came weekly to pick up the dried copra in bags. He then shipped it to the copra mill in Savusavu, and the mill extracted the oil.
At that time the prices were low and it was hard to make any surplus cash to pay for parts and repairs to tractors, driers, equipment and buildings, and make any kind of profit. The grand old estates were struggling with a commodity that had turned into a “poor man’s crop”. Other vegetable oils were eroding the position of coconut oil in the market.
We simply could not make ends meet. We cut our last copra in 1993-94.
Four or five years after we arrived we had begun planting pineapple for the growing tourist industry as an alternative to copra, and we still produce pineapple as the main cash crop to this day.
Virgin Coconut Oil myths get busted
The emergence of Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) around 2000 and the growing international export of VCO from 2010 onwards changed the situation – coconuts once again became a “commodity”, and even a healthy one. The reputation as a harmful tropical oil was rejected through research done by Mary G. Enig Ph.D, all published in her book “Know Your Fats”.
The research of the VCO’s properties itself was a revelation. Other research into the Soya Bean Mafia’s concerted campaign against their competitor “tropical oils” was mindboggling – a story of how a rich well connected industry lied, cheated and corrupted science to increase their market share.
The research was good news but we were “sitting on the fence” for a while before we took a deep breath and went back into coconuts. Was it a fad or was it for real ?
In hindsight we think it was the escalating health problems caused by unsaturated hydrogenated vegetable oils which tipped the scales. The sheer burden of unhealthy people and the resulting pressure on public health systems in Europe, USA, Asia and in the Pacific caused health-minded researchers to have a second look at fats and oils.
The research has been an eye-opener and a blessing for the natural saturated fats such as coconut oil, olive oil and avocado oil.
The Coconut Revival
In 2015 we began clearing the youngest palms we had in the old plantation – they were 50-55 years young. The target was to get them back in production.
Then In 2016 Taveuni got hit by the worst hurricane ever to hit Fiji, and it took its toll. Tropical Cyclone Winston was the 2nd most powerful hurricane ever to hit the Southern Hemisphere and the recovery for the industry has been prolonged.
While in recovery mode throughout 2016 we continued clearing and then planted the first 15 acres of new coconuts as a pilot plot. We continued clearing during 2017 and began planting in earnest in 2018 and throughout 2019 until today in 2020 a full 600 acres of coconuts will have been planted.
The new nuts will come slowly into production from 2024.
Taveniu VCO – Quality Organic Products
We have Organic Certification for the producing coconut areas to help us keep all the natural qualities of the oil.
The VCO we wanted to produce was a “fresh” high quality cold pressed oil. The target a “waterclear” VCO which would keep the fresh scent until the bottle was empty, we wanted consistency – and we had to find an efficient process to make it work.
There were lots of salesmen/companies selling equipment, but very few equipment suppliers who could or would answer the technical questions in regards to cold extraction and recovery.
In 2018 we had finally sourced the equipment we would need and we had it all in at the farm in early 2019, and by the middle of 2019 we had the Virgin Coconut Oil we wanted.
It all sounds good – and it is !! The quality and consistency is everything – and it must be maintained. We have begun selling in the local Fiji market, and so far the buyers are more than pleased.
Coming Full Circle
The production of VCO at source has taken us close to Full Circle. Back in 1988 coconuts and copra was the main source of living. We then left it and grew a number of other cash crops like taro, kava, turmeric, ginger and pineapple. With the replanting of the coconuts and the production of VCO we will once again be Coconut Farmers – and we are confident that we will be producing high quality organic virgin coconut oil for many many years to come.
Living in a fairly remote part of the Island we have people from the villages around us to come and work – planting coconut, harvesting pineapples, producing coconut oil, working in the office – earning a living for themselves and their families. We are very proud of what we have achieved as a team, and proud of the quality of our fruits and our coconut oil.