The coconut sector is perceived as a “sleeping giant” with the government’s estimate indicating that if awakened, it could inject over KES 35 billion into the economy annually. Over the years, coconut farming has faced myriad challenges, including severe pests and diseases, poor crop husbandry practices as a result of inadequate extension services to growers leading to a drop in the tree’s productivity as well as sheer neglect, disinterest, and apathy by industry players. The crop is mostly favored by the Coastal line climatic conditions.
The collapse of the sub-sectors cooperative societies in the early 1980s denied farmers bargaining power and opportunity to exploit potential markets as well as neighboring countries of Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, where coconut products are either lacking or still under restrictive government policies. This created an opportunity for middlemen to pay farmers non-competitive prices for their produce.
The establishment of Kenya Coconut Development Authority (KCDA) in July 2008 and the government’s move to classify the coconut tree as a “special crop” giving it the same status like coffee and tea, has breathed new life to the sector. KCDA has since been transformed to Nuts and Oil Crops Directorate (NOCD) under the agricultural regulator, Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Authority.
BENEFITS FROM THE ROOTS TO THE CROWN
The beauty of coconut is that when you produce one product, whatever comes in as a byproduct becomes a primary product for another chain. For instance, the shell of a nut (husk), which is usually wasted, can be processed into coco dust which is used in horticulture as a growing medium, as a cooler insulation material for industrial and household flake ice and can also produce activated carbon charcoal which could be used as an efficient fuel alternative. The empty coconut shell could be crafted into a bracelet or a traditional scoop for fetching water from wells and pots, and as well, be used as a serving spoon for sauce and gravy. Grated coconut produces not only nutritious coconut milk, and the residues (coconut flakes) may be used as scouring agents for oily utensils and as well as food for poultry. The palm trunk is a good source of timber for furniture and semi-permanent shelters, and its sawdust has, over the past centuries, been traditionally used as a pesticide (mosquito repellant, vermin powder et cetera).
“The beauty of coconut is that when you produce one product, whatever comes in as a byproduct becomes a primary product for another chain.”
Similarly, the coconut meat produces a variety of edible oils as well as desiccated coconut. At the same time, the fiber, which also mostly goes to waste, can be processed into premium house material products or used to manufacture nets for use in greenhouses. The roots of a coconut tree have all along been known for their medicinal value to traditional herbalists. Don’t forget the historical palm wine! Apart from the free benefits of sipping one’s favorite goblet of palm wine, this old liquor has culinary benefits ranging from being an essential source of mouthwatering condiments, it can as well be used as an alternative for yeast or baking powder for the preparation of “mahamri.” Leftover palm wine has vinegar qualities. Certain types of the Coconut palm tree are only grown for decorative purposes around private homes and in gardens. Coconut fiber can be used to manufacture ropes and fasteners while the crown (foliage) produces raw material for making hard brooms.
Apart from producing edible oil, dried coconut (copra) is a source for body oil and hair tonic. The list is almost endless!
Apart from financial constraints experienced by SMEs to expand their ventures, the biggest challenge posed by the industrialization of the sector is the low productivity of nuts. These trees have been neglected. There is no weeding, no adding of manure, the trees just grow to own their own and grace humanity for free-with all the listed benefits above!
Multi-billion-shilling NOCD predetermines that if local investors establish value addition firms and produce the oil locally, the country would save up to Sh 10 billion annually. Currently, the crop’s main product is the wine which NOCD says constitutes 60 percent, nuts, 24 percent, fronds (for roofing) 12 percent while brooms and coco wood constitute 24 and 0.3 percent respectively. NOCD says the crop produces over 100 byproducts with the potential to generate over Sh13 billion annually, which represents 0.4 percent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Products whose quality expectations have been standardized include coco peat, coir ropes, and mats, coconut milk and cream, toddy (mnazi), coco wood sawed timber, makuti brooms, copra, vinegar, coco syrup, mature nut grading guidelines, and tender coconut water. This means manufacturers of these products will have to comply with the requirements of standards that emphasize quality and efficiency.
The country produces 240 million nuts per year from a population of 10 million coconut trees (which might have dropped due to adverse weather conditions, diseases and extensive logging) compared to a country like India, one of the giants in the coconut community, which produces 17 billion nuts annually with a population of over 300 million trees.
Something needs to be done sooner rather than later to revive the Coconut sector to curb economic deficiencies and as well, to contain our persistent ecological challenges.
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