Aware of how mainstream health and wellness foods were becoming in the UK, entrepreneur Vicky Henley saw an opportunity for an exciting new start-up a few years back that would allow her to ditch her job in the financial sector and focus on what she is passionate about – food. PBUK catches up with the businesswoman to learn how, through coconuts, she is connecting East Dulwich with remote regions in the Philippines.
It all started when a friend of Vicky’s already living in the Philippines spotted an opportunity to make use of different parts of a coconut that were going to waste within his business venture.
Mike Pilgrim was extracting fibre from coconut husks for use in mattresses, car seats, door mats and for anti-soil erosion and horticultural applications, but wanted to work with a UK partner to utilise other parts of the coconut within the health and wellness sector and simultaneously stop them from being discarded.
After a lot of research and organising The Coconut Company’s products were launched and although coconut oil and coconut water have been well known in the UK for several years, Vicky realised there is a whole host of foods created from coconut palm in the Philippines that would be interesting for health conscious shoppers. She set about creating a tropical foods brands with a portfolio of coconut-based products.
Two years on and The Coconut Company is booming offering a wide range of products, from favourites like virgin coconut oil, coconut milk powder, flour and sugar, to more unique products such as coconut sap vinegar, amino sauces and nectar.
“Most of our products are sourced from a small factory a few hours outside Manila that produces coconut sap products. The coconut sap is collected by local farmers each day and brought to the factory in pails to be processed quickly before the sap ferments,” she tells PBUK.
“Coconut sap is obtained by making an incision in the flower blossom of the tree and collecting the sugary white liquid that comes out. This sap can then be fermented over a number of months (to make vinegar), or heated to make a sweet syrup (nectar) or further heated to produce sugar crystals. These three products form the basis for much of our range.”
“We import coconut vinegar and our sauces in 200 litre drums. Our nectar is packed in smaller four litre carboys, as it’s a very sticky substance and we found it too difficult to import in larger drums. Our flour and sugar comes in 25kg sacks. All of our produce is re-packed into retail-sized portions in Wales.”
All products are ethically sourced from certified producers in the Philippines and Sri Lanka and having a sourcing office based in Hong Kong and people on the ground in the Philippines, the company can work closely with farmer cooperatives and small producers to ensure sustainable practises and quality products.
“We stock coconut oils and dried coconut milk, which are made from squeezing the coconut meat and allowing the liquid to settle. The coconut milk settles and begins to separate into virgin coconut oil and coconut milk. Various mechanical processes are then used to separate the oil from the milk, ensuring that very little heat is applied, so the oil remains raw.
“The coconut meat that is left after the liquid has been removed can be dried and ground into a flour which is a good alternative to wheat based flours and has a high protein and fibre content. It also retains its sweet coconutty aroma so is great for cakes and desserts.
“As with all of our products, we try to minimise the amount of processing because it’s important to us that our products are as natural as possible. For example, our vinegars are unfiltered and unpasteurised, our oil is raw, with no heat applied and our sauces are made from simple natural and tasty ingredients. All of our products are organic certified and vegan approved.”
As with most crops, sourcing can get tougher when the growing season is hit by adverse weather which affects supply – and coconuts are no different.
“The price of sourcing fresh coconuts changes through the season and is adversely affected by turbulent weather such as hurricanes and torrential rain as the Philippines is particularly affected by heavy winds and flooding on an annual basis,” adds Henley.
“This often reduces the supply of coconuts and will increase the price of fresh nuts for the factory. In turn, we find there are supply constraints at times and prices can be a little volatile. The lead time to get new supplies into the UK is very long, typically at least fours months, so we need to forecast stock carefully to ensure we have adequate supply.
“To counteract this we work closely with the factory to understand the highs and lows of the season. We ask for the farmers’ opinions on the availability of coconut sap for the months ahead and will place orders for the year to ensure the factory has time to produce the order.
“In addition, we help contribute to the local community of farmers by donating clothes, toys and school equipment if they’ve been adversely affected by the typhoons.”
The enthusiasm for coconuts has led to its superfood status and the appetite for coconut-based products shows no signs of waning, demonstrated by the ever-increasing sight of coconut-based products in the supermarket aisles.
Henley believes the trend has not reached saturation point and the myriad of ways the coconut can be used is continuing to catch consumers’ curiosity.
“When I started this business in 2015 it seemed clear to me that there was an abundance of certain coconut products in the European market like coconut oils and coconut water, but very few of the coconut products that were created from sap and milk.
“Many of these products are heavily used in Asia and have been for centuries (like coconut vinegar, the sauces and coconut milk powder), but they were little used in Europe. We wanted to change that and bring these lovely products to a new audience.
“We’ve certainly been helped by the new appetite for coconut products, increasing health awareness by the public for natural products and a growing enthusiasm for new innovative foods from around the world.”
Throughout 2017, The Coconut Company will also be concentrating on the Asian markets as well as the Middle East as it becomes more focused on organic and natural products.
“In terms of new product development, we have a few projects which are ongoing and will use our existing range, but bring in new flavours to complement coconut,” adds Henley.
“Coconut nectar and coconut milk powder are being adopted by the food industry this year in a big way. We are finding that the demand for both products is increasing greatly, specifically from manufacturers of chocolate, granola, yoghurts, meal kits, powdered drinks and snack bars.
“We are also receiving lots of interesting requests from catering businesses wanting to stock coconut vinegar and the sauces, as a point of difference for their menus.”