Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Poverty or Plenty for Coconut Growers in the Philippines?

This post was written by Gigi Gatti, Regional Director, Asia, Grameen Foundation and Gretchen Grani, Director of Corporate Giving and Sustainability, Nutiva.

In 2015, sales of coconut water topped $778 million in the U.S. alone, and sales are expected to hit $1.9 billion by 2019. Demand for coconut oil, butter, milk, flour, flakes and sugar is also on the rise globally. One-quarter of this production comes from small farms in the Philippines, where some of the poorest farmers live, earning on average just U.S. $2 per day. How do we help farmers living in impoverished regions ride the coconut wave?

For companies who sell coconut products, this involves assessing their supply chain — who they do business with and how. It may involve small efforts to strengthen the capability of the farmers who anchor that chain. But, in our experience, this is often not enough. Many of the obstacles farmers face are built in to the current market system, and overcoming them requires collaborative efforts that address these root problems.  

One example of such deep collaborative engagement is FarmerLink in the Philippines, a program initiated by Grameen Foundation with partners as diverse as Nutiva (a U.S.-based organic foods company), the government’s Philippine Coconut Authority, local banks, Franklin Baker (the Philippines' largest coconut exporter) and aWhere (an agricultural intelligence company). Together, they are helping to alleviate the unremitting poverty in rural coconut-growing areas.

The livelihoods of small-hold farmers in the Philippines depend on the ability to sustainably grow high yielding, high-quality coconuts. But their productivity is among the lowest in the world. A typical small farm yields just 43 nuts per tree in a year — barely enough to fill three liters of coconut oil. In contrast, farmers in high-producing countries harvest close to 188 nuts per tree per year. 

A major cause of this low productivity is the number of trees in the Philippines that are past their prime. Old and often sickly, they need to be replaced. Other causes include the extreme weather occurrences ― such as Typhoon Haiyan in 2014, which felled 44 million coconut trees ― droughts, floods and outbreaks of coconut pests and diseases.  

Poverty causes its own cyclone: farmers who produce little will earn little and therefore have almost no money to invest in their farms. Neither do they have access to the most up-to-date information on how to cope with mounting environmental stressors or even current knowledge of farming practices as simple as using salt as an organic fertilizer.

These environmental and economic problems are interlinked, and they require comprehensive solutions. FarmerLink uses digital technology to link crucial elements of a comprehensive solution. Using farmers’ mobile phones, FarmerLink delivers information and services that include an early warning system for extreme weather and crop pest threats. Field agents use special programming on their tablets to further guide and train farmers during on-site visits. Data collected by field agents provides the background needed to craft farm management plans and for microfinance organizations to tailor financial advice to individual households.  

But information alone isn’t enough. The strength of the technology is in the hands of the person who uses it. At least initially, simply hearing about a new farming practice may not be enough motivation for a farmer to change her practices.

Ubiquitous stands of aging trees are a case in point. Farmers do not normally cut old and unproductive trees. Gina Reyson, a coconut farmer in Davao explains: “Most of the trees here are old. They are older than me. Farmers don’t cut them down because they have a sentimental value. These trees were passed down to them by their grandparents.”

It took working with FarmerLink field agents to convince Gina that the right thing to do is to replace these old trees with new seedlings. In six years, the seedlings would begin to produce coconuts and boost her harvest and income. But farmers like Gina can’t afford seedlings on their own.

FarmerLink partner Nutiva offered a solution. The organic foods company has donated over 135,000 coconut seedlings to farmers in the Philippines over the last five years, 90,000 of which went to FarmerLink participants. Another partner, Franklin Baker, grew the seednuts into seedlings. FarmerLink field agents then distributed the seedlings to registered farmers, generating new life and offering financial growth on these farms.

When FarmerLink launched in October 2015, farmer apprehension toward the new technology and practices was tangible. Even field officers sometimes balked. But momentum is growing as farmers see the results and understand the program in its entirety. More than 20,000 farmers have registered with the program, and individual farmers are making progress. One farmer harvested 1,800 nuts from one hectare of land after adding salt fertilizer, a 60 percent increase from the year before. Another farmer is saving her increased income from the program for the child she and her husband are hoping for.  

Whether it's new coconut seedlings, access to information and financing, or training on good agricultural practices, the program’s comprehensive and collaborative approach is helping farmers overcome barriers to improving their livelihoods. Addressing social, environmental and economic conditions in a cultural setting, the program provides total engagement to ensure the coconut growers fully benefit from the labor and love they invest in their farms.