The coconut or copra industry continues to be a major source of income or lifeline for those in the rural areas particularly in the outlaying Islands and in pockets of Vanua Levu.
The diversification of the industry from just basically supplying copra before to the now existing set-ups in villages or community halls whereby virgin oil is produced, coconut soaps, to bio-diesel fuel has seen farmers now with more options.
However, the one challenge for those who depend on these supplies is the marked decrease in supply since the 1990s.
This issue has been addressed in the past through major rehabilitation programs but the lack of continuation has caused much concern in as far as our exports are concerned.
Copra Millers of Fiji Limited executive chairman Ilisoni Taoba hopes Industries stakeholders especially coconut growers will co-operate and take full advantage of the Fiji Coconut Industry Reform program approved by cabinet for implementation for 2012 and 2013.
"To encourage this, CMFL is giving freight subsidy to the suppliers, $30 per tonne for Savusavu tikina area and $55 per tonne to all beyond and outer island suppliers," says Taoba.
Taoba says the supply from growers declined from 30,000mt in 1977 to 10,096mt in 2009 and 6,000mt in 2010. This has to be reversed immediately to 1977 level.
"To achieve this within the next 10 years, we have to replant 650 000 trees per year over the next 5 years.
The other major challenge now for the CMFL is that buyers of crude coconut oil are decreasing globally. Buyers are after processed oil now.
The cost and risk of transporting crude oil has seen the shift towards RBD or refined, bleached, and deodorized. RBD oil is usually made from copra (dried coconut kernel).
For CMFL to fully go into RBD there must be things put in place at home in as far as supply is concerned.
"Coconut growers and potential new growers should not to be too depended on the government and they should take full responsibility to make up for the target 650 000 new plant.
Demand for virgin oil
"Select virgin coconut oil to get the most health benefits." This is the word on the global market and has been scientifically proven also.
Virgin coconut oil is produced either by quick drying the copra and then pressing the oil out with a machine, or by "wet-milling" the coconut milk. With wet-milling, the oil rises to the top of the coconut milk and is separated through various means.
The Journal of Cosmetic Science published a study in 2003 comparing plant oils for hair damage, and stated that coconut oil was the best treatment to keep hair from breaking during combing.
In 2004, wet-milled virgin coconut oil was found to do a better job of lowering "bad" cholesterol levels than refined coconut oil. The study, reported in Clinical Biochemistry, stated that the polyphenols in virgin coconut oil not only reduced fat cells in the bloodstream, but showed anti-oxidant activity as well.
Virgin coconut oil has been clinically proven to be 100 percent effective against Candida albicans and other strains of fungus, according to a 2007 clinical study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food.
A 2009 study published in Lipids compared soybean oil to coconut oil as part of a weight loss program for obese women ages 20-40. Combined with a low calorie diet and walking 50 minutes a day for 12 weeks, women in the coconut oil group lost more weight than those in the soybean oil group.
Locally, the demand for virgin oil has also seen farmers or rural based women with another option which rakes in more income compared to the traditional copra production.
Today, one 750ml bottle virgin oil will be sold at around $15-$20 depending on the labour put into it.
The challenge however, for this to reach export standards is in the capacity to mass produce and also appropriate packaging for the needs of the markets targeted.
Mana Fiji Ltd is a Taveuni based company specialising in virgin oil products for the past five years.
Director Peni Drodrolagi said it took him well over three years to come up with a packaging to be accepted in major hotels like Sofitel and on shelves of supermarkets.
"We have the resources in terms of coconuts and there is the demand, but I guess as entrepreneurs we must continue to research on how best we can deliver."
His virgin oil products come in the form of massage oils which is supplied to Denarau and also cooking oils set to appear on supermarket shelves soon after he introduced a bar coding system, which is a requirement for any goods sold at supermarkets.
But like many others he also faces the challenge of quality stock and is now looking at Lomaiviti Group and the Lau Islands to supply him the coconuts he needs. "We really need to replant more coconuts for the future of the industry. He has received a positive response from the New Zealand and Australian markets but the challenge is that both request certain types of packaging.
"Australia wants virgin oils in glass bottles but New Zealand wants them in plastic tubs."
Taoba says efforts must now be directed towards identifying potential market for diversified coconut products - Virgin Coconut Oil, Fiji Coconut Water, Coconut Cream, Coconut milk etc.
"CMFL as a major buyer of copra is to identify evaluate value adding of crude coconut oil into RBD coconut oil in order to compete in the international market and sell locally as import substitute for cooking oil."