SEARCHING FOR VIRGIN ORGANIC COCONUT OIL

coconut triangle The coconut triangle in Sri Lanka

Bruce Cohen

Building up a sustainable supply of certified organic coconut oil and flour has proven to be a real challenge for us over the last year as demand has surged and our Mozambique partner has just not been able to keep up.

For several months now I have been researching other suppliers around the world (in Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka) trying to find an additional source of oil that meets our standards. I have learnt over the years to seek out wherever possible the source rather than rely on middlemen/brokers because proof of provenance (who makes it, how they make it) is really the only way to confirm quality, especially when it comes to organic.

My search finally led me to a family-owned oil producer in the coconut triangle of Sri Lanka whose response to my …
… many questions ticked all the boxes. Early in February I hopped on a plane and flew to Colombo to meet with Doreen Jayakoddy and her team.

Chipping away the shell.

Chipping away the shell.

Getting to the oil mill required a few hours’ drive north of Colombo along harrowingly narrow roads where every blind rise is an overtaking opportunity and trucks, buses, scooters, tuk-tuks, cars, animals and pedestrians somehow manage to share the narrow tarmac ribbon at suicidally close range.

The route was lined with coconut palms (including many orange-coloured King Coconuts which produce a delicious coconut water) that became denser as we entered the “triangle” and on a rutted sand road eventually arrived at the factory. The oil mill is currently undergoing extensive refurbishment and a brand new organic coconut milk facility is being constructed alongside (coming soon from us).

Removing the inner skin.

Removing the inner skin.

During my tour of the plant, what struck me – once again – about the production of real, virgin coconut oil (VCO), is how labour intensive the process really is. Unlike the industrially-manufactured coconut oils made from dried copra (which I don’t believe have much nutritional value at all), VCO in Sri Lanka is made using traditional tools and some basic technology.

Although the Sri Lankan manufacturing process is quite different from that used by our Mozambican partners (who use a low-impact technology called Direct Micro Expelling which also produces a fantastic oil), both solutions reflect an important commitment to putting people – and not machines – at the core of the process. You can read about the Mozambican process here.

At the Sri Lankan oil mill, this is how they produce VCO:

First, after being washed, the outer hard shell of the nut is chipped off using small axes to reveal the smoothe brown inner skin of the coconut. The skin is than carefully removed (by hand) using a special blade to shave it off.

The process has to be done carefully so no skin is left behind because consumers (unfortunately, in my view) expect a glass-clear/snow-white oil with no sediment (in my view a little sediment is proof that the oil has not been chemically/industrially produced).

Pressing the oil

Pressing the oil

The fresh coconut flesh is chipped and dried for a few hours in ovens to remove excess moisture. It’s then fed into a bank of cold-presses and the oil is squeezed gently out. The temperature of the oil is kept below 40C and the result is a delicious, virgin oil full of good fats and other nutrients.

After watching the entire process as well as the hand-sifting of the oil cake to make a wonderful organic coconut flour, I was convinced I had found the supplier I was looking for.

So I’m pleased to advise that our order has been placed and within the next 6-8 weeks our first container of organic coconut oil and flour from Sri Lanka will be landing in SA.

Enjoying coconut water from a King Coconut.

Enjoying coconut water from a King Coconut.