The copra problem
Conventional coconut oil comes from dried coconut flesh, called copra. Copra is dried in a wood-fuelled kiln, or in the sun, over a period of a few days. It is time-consuming, dirty, lonely, arduous, male-dominated, fuel-intensive and low-paying work. Many farmers consider it a form of slavery.
The journey of the copra from farm to mill is interesting.
After drying, the copra is rammed into hessian sacks. When full, these sacks weigh around 80kg which comes from 400 to 500 coconuts.
The full sacks are transported by canoe or road (if available) to a local district centre that has a wharf and a copra buyer/trader.
The sacks are weighed and stored under cover until a coastal cargo vessel calls by and anchors alongside the wharf. The full sacks are then lugged into the vessel’s hold (a back-breaking job) to be taken on to an export port.
Here the sacks are weighed again (they lose oil and weight in storage and in the holds of the local trading vessels) and then emptied onto a concrete slab in a warehouse to be pushed and shoved by bulldozers onto large tarpaulin sheets which are lifted by crane from their corners and dumped as bulk loose cargo into the hold of an international bulk cargo vessel for transport to a large industrial oil mill — often in Europe or Asia.
Unhygienic drying, humid tropical conditions, bulk shipping and long distances, result in lengthy delays and the growth of moulds on the copra. Sometimes this leads to carcinogenic aflatoxin contamination.
Copra oil extraction requires large-scale, high-pressure, expensive, energy-intensive equipment. Unhygienic copra means that the resultant oil is normally of low quality with a Free Fatty Acid (FFA) level of well over 3%. (FFA is one measure of rancidity of oil).
Consequently copra oil requires refining, bleaching and deodorising (RBD) to create a commercially acceptable product. The refining process uses hydrochloric acid, solvents and steam to strip out the contamination. Some residual solvents remain in the oil. The process also removes the natural volatiles and anti-oxidants that give pure coconut oil its unique flavour and aroma.
The total process from farm to refined oil can take many months. The residual copra-meal is only suitable as animal feed but, even here, care is required because it can be contaminated with carcinogenic aflatoxin.
The tropical world has over one billion coconut palms, producing over 50 billion coconuts each year. And yet, because of the low income earned on the world market from coconut products, many coconut groves are run down, with nuts and old trees lying where they fall, encouraging plant disease and insect pests.
With fluctuating copra prices, farmers only harvest their nuts when prices are high or when they are in desperate need of cash. For many remote islands with plenty of coconuts, copra is still a risky venture because of the infrequency of shipping services.
There is an urgent need to reclaim the tree of life. The DME® solution is a sustainable option