Emerging coconut veneer value chain: Turning old coconuts into high value products
Monday, 01 October 2018 15:55

You have probably heard that age-old saying, ‘Knowledge is power’. Elaborating on this, Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan said that information is liberating and that education is the premise of progress in every society, in every family. Knowledge and, more importantly, the sharing of it, is what enables people, and it is critical for advancement. One such source of knowledge is the Overview Coconut Market study that was launched in January of this year by CIDP. It provides crucial and valuable information that will ultimately improve livelihood opportunities for farming households, including rural women in the Pacific region.

Had it not been for this study, four priority coconut value chains with promising potential would not have been identified. The coconut veneer value chain is an emerging commercial value chain that is currently non-existent in Fiji but has piqued the interest of various industry stakeholders from government, timber-mill owners, retailers, exporters and communities, due to its immense potential to develop into a vibrant and healthy value chain in the Pacific region. The coconut veneer value chain can use tested technologies that peel coconut palms and turn non-productive senile trees into high value products.

Supported by CIDP, a detailed follow-up investigation was conducted by Dr Andrew McGregor and Sevanaia Tawake of the Pacific Island Farmers Organisation Network. They presented their report –The coco veneer value chain: The Fiji case study – at the CIDP Value Chain Steering Committee Meeting held in Labasa on 11–12 September. Their presentation was the highlight of the meeting, which was attended by over 30 coconut industry stakeholders from Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. CIDP also organised on-site visits to Fiji's main coconut processor, Copra Millers of Fiji Ltd, in Savusavu and to one of Fiji's four substantial veneer/plywood companies, Valebasoga Tropikboards Ltd, in Labasa.

In the last decade, there has been a growing worldwide decline in coconut production, particularly in the Pacific region, as a consequence of the rising percentage of senile coconut palms that are over 60-years old and produce very few nuts. Adding to the problem is the fact that replanting coconuts can be a laborious task for farmers, who need an immediate worthwhile return from removing their old palms.

Dr McGregor says, ‘A coconut palm can survive more than 100 years. However, once they are over 60 years old, they are more vulnerable to being broken by severe cyclones – the frequency of which is increasing as a result of climate change. So the sooner these palms are utilised the better, or they will be lost forever.’ There is hectare upon hectare of Pacific plantations with spindly old palms and the report states that, in Fiji alone, out of the estimated 6.2 million coconut palms that we have in the country, 3.7 million are senile.

ACIAR (Australian Center for International Agricultural Research) conducted two Pacific Island coco wood projects, the most recent of which was in 2009. Supported by the Queensland Department of Primary Industries, SPC and Fiji’s Forestry Department, it specifically aimed at developing the technologies, processes and expertise to produce veneer and veneer-based products from senile coconut stems. Commercial peeling trials were undertaken at the Valebasoga Tropikboards (VTB) Ltd. in Labasa, with logs supplied by coconut estates close to Savusavu.  The applied research was reported as scientifically successful, although Fiji’s four plywood processing companies indicated that, in order to gain confidence to invest in this new venture, there is a need for further commercial trials.

The coco veneer value chain report suggests that it is most viable to sell coco veneer products such as flooring, lining, joinery surfaces (tops and solids), bench tops and special light plywood to the high value niche hotels and tourism markets in Fiji, as this will provide reasonable returns to all actors along the value chain. It is, however, important that coco veneer is exempt from existing price control regulations.

Other recommendations were discussed at length by the CIDP Value Chain Steering Committee Meeting participants. These included the complete mapping of senile coconut trees using new technologies in Fiji’s upcoming agricultural consensus in 2019 and applying for further grants for more technical training.

By the end of the two-day meeting in Labasa, it was clear that stronger public-private partnerships must be formed, strengthened and leveraged to cultivate this value chain. CIDP’s Team Leader, Naheed Hussein, documented these next significant steps to conclude the event. Rudolf Dorah of the Pacific Farm Group based in Solomon Islands stated, ‘Seeing that some mapping of coconut trees has already been done here, we look to Fiji to move ahead and lead the way for the rest of the Pacific.’