Jack’s Mission to Change Mindsets around Copra is Benefitting Solomon Islands Farmers
Friday, 28 September 2018 16:41
Jack Chottu, the managing director of Chottu Coconut Products in the Solomon Islands, is laughing as he explains his relationship with the farmers who supply him with copra for his oil milling business.

‘If I just go and talk, talk, talk to my farmers, they’re tired of hearing me!  If I can help them to finance improvements to make better quality copra, then they’re listening!’

‘We’re just at the stage now where we can offer bonuses or an additional premium for first grade copra.’ While Jack heads the Chottu Coconut Products (CCP) company, it is truly a family business with a strong community allegiance.

‘My wife works as the purchasing manager – she has built a great network of farmers and keeps everyone informed.  Two sons operate the factory and do the transport,’ he said.  ‘My daughter-in-law does value adding of products and sales management.’

Jack has come in to Honiara for the day to be interviewed for this story, where there is an internet connection at his third son Simon’s house. Simon is responsible for CCP’s communications.

There is clearly a lot of dedication in the Chottu family to make the business a success.

‘We employ five permanent staff and three casual staff.  We’re proud of the loyalty that we have to them, and that they have shown to us,’ Jack explained.

CCP’s premium copra oil can be manufactured at a lower cost than Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) partly because Jack opted to use an Indian manufactured “Tinytech” cold press mill at the factory.  Daily these cold press mills can process about 600kg of copra, which is the dried coconut kernels from which oil is obtained by CCP at a yield rate of about 52 per cent of oil.

With three people working for a day in the factory they can produce around 300 litres of oil compared with six people to produce 45 litres from a typical VCO factory.

To source enough coconuts for the Chottu Coconut Products factory, Jack’s family produces its own copra as well as buying from about 10 other farmers.

It is a successful small enterprise, and one of four emerging coconut industry businesses selected for a detailed marketing analysis, as part of the European Union funded “Coconut Industry Development for the Pacific” programme (CIDP), which is being conducted by the Pacific Community (SPC). For Jack and the Chottu family, the case study has given them new perspectives that will assist in business expansion.

Improving the quality of the copra supply has been a known challenge for a long time.  But what surprised Jack Chottu were the issues relating to the quantity of outputs. At the moment it is difficult for CCP to obtain enough of the premium copra from its farmers to be able to run it as separate batches.

‘With improved driers to enable more premium copra production we could all be much more profitable.’

For CCP, the primary limitation to further expansion is lack of finance.

Jack’s advice to new producers is to draw up a business plan for maximum production and factor that into approaches to banks or investors, so that the finance is already available when it is time to expand.

Cashflow is always a challenge. ‘My farmers think that money flows like water,’ Jack said.  ‘But it can be really tough; getting payments, processing and paying suppliers.’

‘The banks want to see evidence of cashflows to provide additional capital, but we are out from Honiara and frequent banking is not practical.’

Jack is now also keen to diversify CCP’s crops and products. One of the changes is to plant Noni (Morinda citrifolia) that produces a valuable medicinal fruit, and which is unaffected by harmful pests such as Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle and African Snails.

Noni is being intercropped within the family’s plantation and CCP distributes Noni seedlings from the family nursery to their suppliers.

CCP is vigilant about Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle, cutting down and removing infected materials and keeping the plantations clear of old wood.

A key advantage of intercropped plantations is that the weed maintenance is usually better, because farmers are visiting the plantation more often, and the weeding is done more frequently.

This can be seen on those Chottu suppliers’ farms that also have intercropped cocoa or betelnut within their coconut crops.  There are very few weeds growing in the plantation, making it easier to find and harvest coconuts when they fall.

To move ahead, CCP needs to be able to respond to the increasing demand for high quality Crude Coconut Oil (CNO).

There is particular demand in the domestic market as more people start to consider CNO as a cooking oil, not just something for health care.

Jack and the Chottu family will continue to work on improving the quality of CCP’s oils, through improving handling and treatment of the coconuts, copra and oil at the various stages of processing.

A priority will be the continued training of coconut growers and support for their efforts to improve their drying facilities so they can reliably sell first grade copra to CCP.

The interview for this story ends quickly, as  Jack has to be on the move – to pick up grand-children, visit his wholesaler at Honiara market and then get back out to the factory. ‘It can be pretty tough some days – but my neighbours rely on the payments I can give them to pay for medical clinics and school fees.

‘Now that we’re into it, I want this business to be a success, for everyone.’