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Sunkissed fruits of Fiji!

Sashi Kiran
Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sunkissed, full of flavour and delicious — any Fiji grown fruit you taste!

All through the year fruits, are readily available in Fiji and there is glut when each season matures whether its mangos or guavas. Many families rely on income from these seasonal fruits.

Villages in Nakorotubu District of Ra told us they sold various fruits throughout the year; lemons, mandarins, bananas, papayas, plantains, mangoes, kavika, guavas. After Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston destroyed their forests, families struggled to meet their basic family needs.

Severe TC Winston made many families realise how much we take our fruits for granted. Many Ra communities are now working on redeveloping their fruit orchards.

Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises & Development (FRIEND) is a homegrown NGO that assists communities identify their skills and resources for sustainable livelihoods. Visiting communities, we saw there was an abundance of fruits. When we started the organisation 16 years ago, rural women would share their jam and chutney recipes so we could help them set up their livelihoods. Chutneys and pickles were easier to prepare for commercial shelf life without additives, however, we struggled to develop various jams for the market.

We have grown up eating homemade jams which is just real fruit pulp, mixed with sugar and lemon juice. Taste of fruit and aroma makes these homemade joys irresistible. We could see women were proud of these tastes they produced, skills learnt and passed down from generations. Fruits were in abundance and so were the skills — whether it was delicious pineapple, guava, pawpaw or marmalade! We had to test the shelf life and we did not wish to add any artificial preservatives, additives or even pectin used in commercial jams, we were hoping to make the real home jam taste available to customers. After many trials, we launched the real fruit pulp jams in the market.

The most popular jams remain guava and pineapple jams. Pawpaw was added to the range and a resort started ordering tamarind jam made for the specific market. Marmalade became a favourite for many expatriates who loved the taste of sunkissed citrus in a jar!

Most commercial outlets wanted to see consistent colour. This would often mean adding food colouring for a consistent look. We decided against the practice and took the risk hoping that food lovers would like the natural look and taste and it paid off! So you may see our jam jars looking lighter or darker in colour depending on the variety and ripeness of the fruits.

While rural women make these wonderful jams at our HACPP-certified food production facility, they also provide a market for many other rural women who bring their fruits to the production centre. However the women in the interior areas of Vanua Levu and even Viti Levu could not deliver their fruits fresh for processing.

So we began the trial of drying fruits in their communities, both for consumption and a steady source of income. We were also hoping dried fruits could replace processed snacks for children. Over the years we have heard Ministry of Health statistics stating micronutrient deficiency is high among children in Fiji. It is reported 40 per cent of our children are malnourished and leading cause of infant mortality is linked to poor nutrition!

We are hopeful micronutrients rich fruit snacks would become a favourite for kids!

Rural children have more access to fruits as they climb trees and help themselves. Children in urban and peri-urban areas have easier access to unhealthy processed snacks.

We invited various food experts to teach us the art of fruit drying and hired trainers from Asia and local universities. All the trainers taught us drying of fruits using sugar syrup as a preservative. If we wanted dried fruit to be children's snack then we couldn't have it sugar coated! This would be just as bad as the sugar soaked processed foods.

We know that fruits have natural sugar, fructose, and we could use this as a preservative. So our team conducted trials, drying fruits naturally using direct sunlight. We discovered natural drying increased the sweetness as the water evaporated leaving behind a rich mixture of fructose, fruit fibre and protein, vitamins, microminerals, and other micronutrients.

However, there were still many hurdles. We found that bananas were always in excess in rural communities. However, when sundried it oxidised and turned darker in colour. We discovered that dipping these delicious bananas in lemon juice ensures its golden in colour and retains its texture and flavour. Readily available pawpaw also underwent similar trials and both products have been launched and are readily available in leading supermarkets, distributed by our partner Motibhai & Co Ltd.

However, the best dried fruit we have ever trialed are vudi or ripened plantains. To prepare you can slice ripe plantains about an inch thick and just let it dry well on one side before turning these. The fructose in its natural sweetness gets concentrated with the drying process and makes it most delicious. Vudi and mangoes are also being dried in the communities however most of these are consumed or sold even before these reach the market!

FRIEND's Fiji Style dried fruits are a favourite for gluten-free cassava and breadfruit flour fruit cakes. If the dried fruits are soaked in water to soften for use, the water gets naturally sweetened and can be added to sugar-free cakes.

Over the years we have conducted training in more than 60 communities around the North including Taveuni, Southern Lau and the Western Division to encourage families to dry their fruits each season for kids snacks.

Fiji is blessed with a wide variety of delicious fruits, let's make use of these and improve the health of our families.

? Sashi Kiran is the founding chief executive officer for Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises & Development (FRIEND) www.friendfiji.com. Views expressed are hers and not of this newspaper.








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