The towering coconut palms dance to the sound of wind as you approach Mazeras area and make your way into Mombasa town. For coastal residents, the tree is a big part of their lives and it is against this backdrop that coconut palm is referred to as the tree of life.
But the tree, which could earn the country approximately Sh25 billion each year remains largely unexploited as Kenya spends billions of shillings to import edible oils, which could be produced locally if the coconut industry is developed. Records indicate that coast alone has a crop population of more than 300,000 trees but they are of no economic importance despite their potential.
The coconut tree, which is the major cash crop in Kwale, Kilifi, Malindi and Lamu, can provide not only the required edible oils but also other products that Kenya imports. Virtually every part of the tree is commercially viable, starting with the fruit, its outermost covering or the husk, which can be used to make ropes, mats, sacks, mattresses, cushions, pillows and brushes.
The shell with a few refinements can be turned into beautiful floor and wall tiles, buttons, bowls, serving spoons, beauty products like bangles, earrings, necklace and hair clips. It can also be used as fuel for cooking and other heating purposes. Under the shell is the kernel – the white flesh with a hollow centre filled with sweet water.
The flesh can be eaten straightaway and the water can serve as a thirst quencher and it’s very nutritious. The flesh can be shredded and the white juice or the coconut milk can be used as cooking oil, and with some controlled heating can be turned into body lotion and hair tonic. This coconut cooking oil is free of the side effects associated with artificially manufactured cooking fats, such as obesity and high blood pressure.
The shredded flesh can also be used to make cakes. The flesh can be processed into edible oils, margarine, soaps, washing powders and animal feeds. The coconut water is a sweet refreshing drink that can be refined into high quality soft drink.The immature or tender coconut, known as madafu, provides a natural soft drink and a quick snack. It’s very popular with tourists.
As for the flowers, the buds can be tapped to produce palm wine. However, despite the rich potential, coconut farmers in coast are living in visible poverty. For 77-year Mzee Charo Nguma, a veteran coconut farmer in Kilifi, over decades, the tree has brought him more pain than gain. “I have been a coconut farmer for more than 30 years but the income is very little and requires one to be patient as the tree takes long to mature,” says the septuagenarian.
A recent study by Pwani University singles out low prices of the coconut products, unclear legal framework, lack of proper markets, poor farming methods, low productivity and lack of financial support from the government and financial institutions as some of the factors that hinder the indigenous community from benefiting from the coconut products in the region.
“There is need for proper pricing policies, proper markets, proper regulations particularly on the coconut palm wine and that appropriate planting materials be made available to the farmers at affordable prices,” recommends the study which focused on Kilifi County. But the Government through the Kenya Coconut Development Authority (KCDA) is working towards sapping the money out of the tree.
The authority is working with 81,000 coastal farmers and the demand for seedlings is now at 100,000 during the current rainy season – almost four times the demand last year. Since its formation in 2007, KCDA’s programme has delivered a more than six-fold increase in the number of coconut fruits per tree.
Initially, trees were yielding between 15 and 30 coconuts a year, but now farmers are getting 100 or more. KCDA Director Francis Fondo says if fully exploited, the coconut industry in Kenya has the potential of generating more than Sh25 billion annually. “We are currently earning Sh6 billion instead of the projected Sh25 billion.
There is a lot of potential in coconut farming, which is yet to be exploited to create employment and alleviate poverty ,” said the director. The economic value of the tree is already being felt in other countries and farmers are making money from it. During the recent Kenya International Coconut Conference at Sarova White sands Beach Resort in Mombasa facilitators from Asian and the Pacific coconut communities demonstrated how research has changed the face of coconut farming.
Unique innovations such as using coconut sap to extract natural sugar, vinegar, wine, liquor, syrup, sweet and honey among other products were some of the projects of coconut products, which were presented during the conference. One such rare spectacle was displayed by Divina Bawalan, a former senior science research specialist in Philippine Coconut Authority and Peyanoot Naka, an agricultural scientist from Thailand.
The two experts stunned the participants with their presentations on how a coconut sap can be used to manufacture a wide range of products and change livelihoods. For instance, the scientists demonstrated how coconut sap, tapped from a chopped coconut bud can be used to manufacture commercial products of high quality.
“From coconut sap we make products such as coco sap syrup, coco wine with 11 percent alcohol, coco liquor with 45 percent alcohol, coco sap vinegar and coco sap sugar and we do world class packaging of alcoholic products,” explained Peyanoot. She explained to the conference, that fresh coconut sap can be concentrated into thick consistency through careful boiling in an open container or vessel to make a natural sweetener, which resembles honey.
An almost similar procedure can be used to make coconut sap sugar, explained the experts. “Coconut sap sugar can be made by concentrating the sap to thick consistency through careful boiling in open containers where it is allowed to cool and form sugar crystals,” said Bawalan. Coconut sap sugar, according to the experts, can be used safely by people with diabetes because of its low Glycemic Index (GI) of 35.
GI is a measure of how much one’s blood glucose, increases in two to three hours after taking a certain meal. GI is considered low when is 55 or less, 56-59 is medium and above 70 GI is high. Food containing low GI is good for the proper control and management of diabetes. The coconut sap sugar has other marketing advantage compared to refined sugar and brown sugar according to the researchers.
Those in the conference were also taken through coconut breeding, hybrid seed production and the benefits of commercial coconut growing by Deejay group from Bangalore, India which is said to have succeeded in changing lives of hundreds of thousands in the area by inventing a coconut species which has high quality yields.
Deejay group Chief Executive Officer, Muthakana Murali says the species has special qualities including early bearing and good quality coconut plants, adding that the project has been a success story in India. “Because it is an early bearing type and produces large nuts, we have been able to rake in a net profit of up to USD 5, 770 (Sh501,990) per year after stabilisation of the project,” said Murali.
He said he is ready to partner with coconut farmers in Kenya and introduce the hybrid coconuts. “We want to prove the potential of Deejay hybrids under the African condition. Once we bring the project I am sure farmers will see the outcome and decide for themselves,” said Murali. Gunathi Lake, Director of Coconut Research Institute of Sri Lanka observed that coconut farmers can double their success in the farming by engaging in bee keeping.
He pointed out the need for intercropping coconut with other plants such as mangoes, cashewnuts, papaya to boost soil enhancement through deposition of foliage as well as increase efficiency in general farming. He added: “Keeping animals in the coconut farm can increase yields because animal droppings ensure nutrients in the soils are maintained. So animals like goats, sheep and poultry kept in free range can be advantageous.”
In an interview with Development Agenda on the sidelines of the conference, Baha Nguma, from KCDA’s extension service’s department said the authority is planning to change the face of farmers by investing Sh400 million per year in the coconut projects for the next five years, in a bid to boost production.
“We have a five year strategic plan to boost coconut production in the country. We are doing all it takes to change the shape of Kenyan Coconut sub-sector by taking it to another level,” said Nguma. He said one million seedlings will be distributed to the needy farmers in the country as a way of fighting poverty. Since 2009, the authority has distributed over 700,000 seedlings whereby 40,000 seedlings were distributed in 2009, 90,000 distributed, 360,000 others in 2011 and 280,000 last year.
Nguma, however, cited inadequate funding from the government as one of the major setbacks to the project. “Funding is a challenge to us. For example, we need Sh400 million every year in this five year strategic plan, but at the moment we are given only Sh172 million which is way below par,” he noted. He added: “Besides, farmers at the grassroots have also been facing challenges in accessing financial services particularly small micro enterprise.”
Nguma blamed financial constraints for the lack of development in Kenya’s coconut sector as well as the current status of low awareness of the diverse value addition commodities along the coconut value chain. He, however, envisions a flourishing future in the sector once the strategic plan is fully implemented. - By REUBEN MWAMBINGU