There are few products with as much foodie currency as coconuts right now, but the challenge is serving fruit that is easy to consume and doesn’t necessarily require a machete to open. At Asia Fruit Logistica in Hong Kong, we caught up with two growers from the Thai contingent to discuss their development plans for this very in-demand category.
Thai coconut grower K Fresh Co., Ltd is taking the concept of farm to fork to a whole new level.
Not only is the company exporting the fresh fruit to 30 countries and also selling value-added items, but it is about to export its Coco’s Cafe concept as well – think of it as a kind of budding coco-Starbucks.
“We have the coconut café in Bangkok now with about 14 branches and all our value-added products are on the menu – coconut water in a bottle, snowflakes, coconut pudding, coconut soft serve ice cream, coconut ice cream,” says marketing representative Tiparat Manusrungsri.
“I will say we are the only one company that takes care from the farm to export, from factory to the end consumers.”
She says a new branch of the cafe will open in South Korea in the coming months, while there are also short-term plans to open outlets in Shanghai and Indonesia.
“After we were doing the young fresh coconuts for export for a long while, we found not every piece of coconut can be exported,” says Manusrungsri, who goes by the name ‘Nine’ to make pronunciation of her name much easier.
“We’ve been thinking of how we can add value to the coconut, and how in the peak season we can buy every piece from Thai farmers, so we came up with the coconut processing product concept of our core brand.”
That brand is All Coco, and buoyed by all the organic certifications necessary for the U.S. (it’s leading export market), Canada and the European Union, the group officially registered its new coconut processing factory in January this year.
“We invested in a lot of special machines, especially for Nam Hom coconuts – we have the best process to preserve the aroma and the freshness of the coconut in our products, apart from the water,” she says.
The bulk of K Fresh’s coconuts are shipped fresh and whole, with the Nam Hom variety that Nine claims can only grow in particular regions in southern Thailand because of their unique climate and soils.
The company currently sources from 1,120 hectares of production, but with more contract farmers in the mix that figure could increase to 1,600 hectares over the course of the next year.
Apart from leading market the U.S., Nine is optimistic about China.
“Actually it’s been for over 10 years that we’ve had access but the market increased 100% over the last three years,” she says.
“We’ve been shipping to Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand and some countries in Europe as well.”
The company also encourages retailers and traders to provide implements for opening the coconuts, including the ‘Young Coconut Puncher’ which needs a hammer to hit down on the instrument to open the fruit.
Unfortunately, Thailand has ranked very poorly in its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. Its fruit industry has attracted particular attention in this sense through the legal persecution of human rights defender Andy Hall over his investigations into alleged human rights abuses at a Thai pineapple operation – the verdict in this case will be announced on Sept. 20.
This scenario means Thai companies need to be incredibly proactive in their treatment of workers to improve their country’s international reputation.
K Fresh has Fair for Life certification, and Nine says the company offers a range of benefits to its workers.
“We pay them at the best rates, piece by piece of coconut – even the staff who cut and do the trimming they get paid by piece at a very high price.
“We treat them as artists, not laborers. That’s because every coconut is different, they can craft it beautifully, we respect all our farmers and treat them very well.”
Corporate social responsibility efforts also include health checks, fire training and keeping the facilities drug-free, and perhaps the most telling is th fact it supports education for the non-Thai children of its migrant workers.
“They are unable to join Thai schools because they don’t have any documentation, but we give a budget to the school to accept these children so they can have an education in Thailand,” she says, adding the group obviously provides accommodation for its workers, and takes farmers on trips to South Korea to give thanks for their work.
Making coconuts easier to consume
Many readers will be familiar with Spanish company Genuine Coconut, which won the Fruit Logistica Innovation Award in Berlin earlier this year for its coconuts fitted with ring pulls like in soda cans.
It is a trend that has been in the works with many Thai companies developing their own techniques for cutting the fruit so it is easier for consumers.
One such company is Chatchawal Orchid Co., Ltd, which has only recently moved into the coconut space.
“We have to solve the problem for the customer that if you have this kind of coconut, how can you eat it?” asks managing director Chatchawal (Joe) Telavanich.
“You have to chop it, but what if you don’t have a big knife? In Europe they might not be used to using these big knives like in Asia – it’s not that easy to open.”
He says the benefit of having a whole coconut is it can last for up to two months, but his company is now offering a more conveniently prepared coconut kept in a bag that can last for two weeks.
“Initially we only supplied the big coconut – this other one we just developed and we’re looking for the opportunity.”
Chatchawal Orchid currently exports one container per week to Australia and one container every two weeks to the U.K., as well as some shipments to South Korea.