Vital Coconut Development Unit visit

The ethnobotany class studies the plants people use and how those plants are used. The unit on material cultural uses of plant products includes economic botany, economically valuable plants and their uses. The coconut tree is literally the tree of life and a tremendous natural resource. Federated States of Micronesia Public Law 18-68, the Coconut Tree Act of 2014, placed the former national Coconut Development Authority with Vital. Vital has been executing a mandate from the President of the FSM and the FM Congress with an eye toward rapidly developing the coconut sector in the FSM into a long-term sustainable economic activity. Source: Vital Transition of CDA: Phase I

The college bus arrived at 4:00 P.M. 

Under this mandate Vital has set a number of goals. Vital plans to develop and upgrade domestic processing capacity of coconut.Vital will be able to process copra produced in the FSM into crude coconut oil for fuel, and coconut meal for animal feed. In a separate process Vital also continues to produce coconut oil for cooking, soap, and the production of body oil.

Lina, Miki, Alexander, Bryan, Gordon, Daryll, and Kohsak at field trip start

Vital also plans to address the producer groups, noting that to operate profitably, Vital must match processing capacity with a stable copra supply and implement quality and quantity based payment incentives. Vital projects a need for a minimum of 380 MT of copra per annum. Peak requirements could be upwards of 1100 MT of copra per annum. Vital has noted in on line documents that current shipping services are sufficient to sustain this supply chain from islands to the processing facilities. Vital has written that communities that are ready to participate in the industry, and are willing to produce copra can be assured that their efforts will not be wasted, and the copra will be purchased and processed by Vital.

Eddie Parce welcomes the class

Vital has noted the need to reestablish the private sector network of buying agents, and to restore trust in this process.

A grinder of copra used in the production of coconut "diesel"

Beyond the production of coconut "diesel", Vital has plans to develop a processing facility that can produce food grade coconut products ranging from coconut flour, virgin coconut oils and more recently coconut water. Targeted markets would include Hawaii, Guam, mainland US, and Japan. Vital estimates that the appropriate facility would require:

  • 55,000 Coconuts a Day supply;
  • 100 Full Time Equivalent Permanent Jobs;
  • 200 Full Time Equivalent jobs in the informal sector for collection and post harvest handling;
  • Generate $6.0 MM per annum in export of Dry Virgin Coconut Oil;
  • Generate $1.2 MM per annum in export of High Fibre Coconut Flour;
  • Generate $1.0 MM per annum in export of Concentrate Coconut Water;
  • Generate $0.15 MM per annum in import substitution for Diesel Fuel;

Stephanie, behind her bags of copra

Gaining access to international markets will require defined standards and regulatory food safety analysis.

Eddie explained the steps in the production of coconut diesel, noting that the processed coconut meal is bagged and sold wholesale in lots of a 100 bags for pig feed. The coconut meal can be purchased from LP Gas in Kolonia, there are also sellers in Kitti and Madolehnihmw. The development of the "coconut tree" industry generates jobs directly with Vital and indirectly in the broader economy such as those places that retails the products produced by Vital.  

In the background can be seen an expeller that separates the oil from the meal in the copra.

Bags of meal, an excellent feed for pigs. Thirty to thirty-five coconuts produce one gallon of oil. There is a yield of about 50% to 60% oil, thus 100 pounds of copra produces about 50 to 60 pounds of oil, the rest is meal. Nothing goes to waste. The fundamental oil production is very sustainable: solar energy powers the coconut tree's production of coconuts.

Coconut diesel in settling drums

Vital is keenly aware that "there is a common assumption that because coconuts
are readily available within communities, and are literally ‘falling from the trees’ that communities are ready to trade. Anecdotal evidence demonstrates that this assumption has been at the root cause of failure of many community based production programs." Vital goes on to note that "This is because:

  • Communities are seldom a homogenous unit. There are different groups with conflicting interests, accordingly dominance/dependence relationships which need to be understood and managed. These relationships give power to the dominant (the landlord, the trader, the moneylender, the bureaucrat) and take away from the disadvantaged.
  • Social realities are diverse. The behavior of individuals and groups and their response to external impulses cannot be understood without an intimate understanding of their social relationships and cultural traditions. Societies use these relationships and traditions to minimize conflicts.
  • Economic activities and wealth creation differs: Economic problems are usually linked to the process of decision-making at the local level. They are also related to the general policy at the state and national level. An important element is the impact of national priorities vis-à-vis local resources and how these affect the economic status of different groups. The impact of what happens to an island community once there is a sudden and significant increase in disposable income? How will the community allocate this income? And how will they deal with disagreements?"

Source: Vital. This nuanced understanding of the realities in the community bodes well for the Vital effort.

Cleaning sludge out of the bottom of the settling barrels

Vital is also providing an economic engine to the outer islands. Coconuts are presently sourced from Pakin, Sapwafik, Nukuoro, and Kapingamarangi. Vital plans to develop processing plants in Chuuk and Yap and to support those plants via coconuts from the outer islands of Chuuk and Yap.

A filter press. The oil that come out of this press is diesel engine ready.

Inbound side of the filter press

Eddie indicates the large containers that store coconut diesel. Franson on the far left.

Eddie takes the class to the other processing area, to the left the coconut washing area

For the production of cooking oil a separate facility is used. This facility also hopes to explore the production of coconut flour. Coconut flour is produced from skinless copra, which produces a white meal suitable for use as a flour substitute. As one who is gluten intolerant, this author perked up when he heard about the possibility of coconut flour.

In the coconut diesel area only dried copra is brought in. For the area above, the nuts are brought in and the meat is removed and ground on site.

A unit to remove the copra from the nut

A grinding unit

Beverly takes note at the head end of the dryer 

An oil press, John, Bryan, Kohsak looking on

Beverly asks insightful and well thought out questions

Elizabeth Augustine, Daryll Keller listening to Eddie

Lilina, Stephanie, John, Elizabeth, Petery

Stephanie, John, Elizabeth, Petery, Patty, Daryll

Jamie Paul, Bryan Wichep

Lina Lawrence, Gordon Loyola

Daryll, Simon, Darleen, Beverly, Eddie

Miki, Petery, Patty, Daryll, Simon, Darleen, Beverly

Eddie explaining an answer to a question from Beverly Billy. 

Load out with Miki Fritz, Bryan Wichep, John Yilbuw. Right on time at 4:25 P.M.

The field trip is always short due to the relatively long travel time and the limits of the 85 minute class time. The author would like to thank Eddie Parce, Peni Drodrolagi, and Vital for allowing and facilitating the visit by the students. Vital is an important engine in the FSM economy, a generator of income and jobs, and also plays a role in education through visits such as that of the ethnobotany class.


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