Society

The coconut connect

Coconut derivatives get fancier by the day. They now come packaged nattily as velvety cream to thicken gravy, as satiating cool drink for tantalising mock tails, as desiccated shavings to roll over sweets, as fleshy extracts in soufflés and mousse and more. And so as the pristine fruit gains from mechanised modernity it is losing out a traditional handmade form of extraction, the goodness of virgin coconut oil or velichenna kaachiyathu. This was once made in all homes in Kerala in urulis or bell metal vessels, on big burners in kitchens.

Asha Devi Varma, a retired agriculture officer is making small but focused efforts to revive the handmade traditional method of preparing virgin coconut oil, an extraction method unique to Kerala in her home in Tripunithura.

Asha Devi did not wish to lead a life of a retiree after completing her tenure as Joint Director of Agriculture. Armed with agriculture related know how and with a wide network of contacts gathered during the course of her work, she began toying with ideas of doing something concrete. At one of the training sessions imparting information on making coconut burfi, pickles and chips to women of a self help group, she was asked if they could be trained in some enterprise with coconut that did not require the use of machinery. That was when she began thinking on the possibilities of a small scale coconut related business to begin with.

She asked the women if they knew the traditional method of extracting coconut oil. “It came as a surprise to me but none of the women from this generation knew the way coconut oil is extracted traditionally, something that their grandmothers would have done routinely,” says Asha, who retails her line of beauty, hair and baby oil locally. In her venture, she employs women for packaging and procures oil from local women’s groups and currently also from women’s groups in Lakshadweep.

“Once I knew that these women did not have the traditional know how of extracting coconut oil, I contacted a few elderly women and Ayurveda experts to learn the method. I then had first-hand experience of the method and in 2013 organised women’s groups here to learn the techniques. It is a laborious process and needs expertise,” says Asha.

The beginning was difficult and the women went through several stages of trial and error, as the process is delicate, till they finally got the procedure right. To start with, the local women’s groups obliged her with cans of oil, but later as their work grew diverse they opted out. Left with no option, she approached her friend and former colleague who had served in Lakshadweep to organise oil for her. Now she has 10 to 20 litres of oil shipped from the island. “It is the purest oil. This method of extraction is time-consuming but it is traditional and handmade. No machines are used.”

After she got a license from the Department of Industries to manufacture and bottle the oil, she showcased her company Suvarna Dharithri’s product, Sudha Oil, at an exhibition where it was received well. In 2014, and in the following year, Asha presented the oil in the Kerala Pavilion at the International Trade Fair, New Delhi. “The process of making the oil is unique to Kerala. In the Philippines, they extract oil by the cold press method,” says Asha.

After the oil made a mark with some clients in North India she received feedback of it having a strong smell. They suggested the need to address the aroma factor. This was taken up as a challenge. She sourced rose oil and almond oil from Kashmir and began experimenting with blending until she reached a viable blend. She then launched aromatic baby and beauty oil. “Coconut milk has contents that are found in mother’s milk. Its properties are good for hair and skin,” she says, and after discussions with Ayurveda doctors made hair oil, a blend of coconut with brahmi, a herb known to have properties that enhances memory, and aids hair growth.

Currently Asha’s venture is small. It is about procuring the oil, blending and packaging. Her clients are doctors, especially gynaecologists who advocate the use of the oil for new moms and babies. “A couple of spoons taken orally is supposed to heal the body after child birth. The beauty oil gives a healthy skin. This is traditional knowledge,” says Asha. She now has a small but dedicated clientele in beauty parlours that procure the oil for hair and skin. As of now she retails through one outlet in the city and retails around 500 bottles.

“It is a small venture. The women who meet over packaging, pouring and bottling the oil say that the money they make over their labour is secondary to the fun they have in the process. I too feel happy that along with extra income we have a good network. Besides, this traditional method of oil extraction that was dying has been revived. That’s a big thing for me,” says Asha.

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 5:42:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/The-coconut-connect/article14477823.ece

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