One of Walter Bradley’s longstanding goals as an engineer and materials scientist has been to harness advanced materials technology to help the world’s poor, most of whom are poor farmers. About 2.7 billion people typically subsist on less than $2/day, wrested from 2–5 acres of land. He learned from a student from Papua, New Guinea, that among them were 11 million farm families who were living on about $500/year from coconuts.
One way of assisting them, regional and international colleagues came to realize, was to develop markets for parts of the coconut tree other than the oily fruit. Dr. Bradley will be giving a keynote address on the progress to date of this form of sustainable agriculture to IC-AMME 2018 (the International Conference on Automotive, Manufacturing, and Mechanical Engineering) in Bali, Indonesia on 26-28 Sept 2018. The conference is organized by the Mechanical Engineering Dept and Continuing Education Center, Petra Christian University.
Dignity Coconuts, which now employs hundreds of people, explains the problem bluntly, “Coconuts have six parts. Most companies use one part of the coconut and discard the rest. As much as 80% of each coconut is wasted—piled up to rot!” But sustainable coconut farming, appropriate for a developing country and owned and operated by nationals, requires both research and an infrastructure. Bradley helped establish the infrastructure for nationals to run their own business recovering and marketing otherwise wasted coconut materials, from pulp to shells.
The Petra conference’s focus is the challenge that “The decrease of natural energy reserves encourages researchers to search for alternative energy and more efficient equipment and machines. Bradley’s talk, “Converting coconut fiber and shell into reinforcements in engineering plastics: helping poor coconut farmers and the environment!” fits right in with that emphasis:
The focus has been on research and development to make the best coconut oil on the market and to create markets for the coconut fiber and coconut shell that could significantly increase the income of poor coconut farmers and provide more environmentally friendly polymeric composites by replacing synthetic reinforcements with reinforcements made from natural materials.
Coconuts may seem, at first sight, a surprising choice for sustainable industrial uses but they offer several advantages:
They are one of the world’s staple food crops. The husk is often burnt as fuel but its coir (fiber of the husk), can be combined with binding materials and then compression-molded or thermo-formed into environment-friendly components of automotive interiors, construction materials, consumer products, and packaging.*
While sustainable, these coconut husks are hardly fragile. Dr. Bradley notes that they help the nut survive a 60 to 80 ft fall, microbe assaults, and even forest fires. They are also cost-efficient and don’t create offensive odors, an important consideration for everyday consumer products.
Another proposed product is coconut shell powder (CSP). The coconut shell is four times harder than the hardest maple hardwood and its powder could be used as a reinforcement in plastics like polypropylene and polyethylene.
But what about the supply of coconuts? Is it reliable?
Coconut is one of the most important crops of the tropics and estimated to be a prime source of fats and protein for over 400 million people. Coconut oil, extracted from the flesh (copra), is one of nine internationally traded vegetable oils and ranks sixth for global production. More than that, as Dignity says, uses are already found for most other parts of the plant. One source estimates as many as nine: husk (coir for fiber and stuffing), shell (for charcoal and carving), water (a nutritious beverage), leaves (for weavable fibres), trunk (for lumber “coco lumber”), and roots (for herbal remedies). But many of these uses are not commercially significant at present, compared to the oil crop.
As of 2018, the Philippines, Dignity Coconuts’ home base, was the world’s second largest coconut oil producer (after Indonesia and before India). World demand is growing and the fact that many trees still in production are over fifty years old (20 years past their prime) highlights the need for sustainable industry practices.
The tree itself may have been a blessing but …
Unfortunately, the economics that grew up around the coconut tree has often been exploitive. Dignity Coconuts explains coconut slavery:
Most coconut companies contract only with big plantations in order to reduce costs. This leaves owners of small farms at the mercy of middlemen who consolidate these smaller harvests while taking a large cut for themselves. Furthermore, these middlemen take advantage of these farmers by offering loans in their time of need. On the outside, these middlemen look like kind friends, as they are providing money for a low harvest, medical needs, schooling fees, etc., yet these loans come at a high price – often having interest rates of 25 – 200%.
With these interest rates, it becomes nearly impossible to pay back the loan before another need arises, leaving the farmer in a cycle of debt. The terms are never written down or explained, so these simple farmers never realize that their “friend” is the very person keeping them in poverty. Even for the few who realize the system (commonly known as “copra slavery”) works against them, they have no other options. “What Is Coconut Slavery?” at Dignity Coconuts
Dignity Coconuts, founded in 2010, is not, however, a charity. Its model is shared ownership, promoting indigenous and women’s leadership. It enjoyed a successful retail launch of its first product, high-quality organic coconut oil: “After beginning sales during the holiday season of 2016, Dignity has entered retail in 2017 in a big way. Already in over 1,000 stores in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, Dignity has seen a great receptivity to its product and story. Dignity can be found in large chains such as Meijer, Stop & Shop, Giant, and Martins.”
* Patent Pending: “Non-Woven Fabric Composites from Lignin-Rich Large Diameter Natural Fibers” BAYU-0027 (208614.00115)