Cold-pressed virgin coconut oil is rich in nutrients and easily digestible. This new star of organic grocery stores, and favorite ingredient of natural cosmetics is becoming wildly popular across the world. An atoll in the Tuamotu Islands, Niau, has made the product its specialty. Here is a portrait of an environmentally friendly Polynesian business.
With their heavenly lagoons, exceptional dive spots and pearl farms, the atolls of the Tuamotu Islands are one of the big attractions of our destination. The coconut palm is a symbol of this group of coral islands. This incredible plant – that is called the tree of a hundred uses – is a useful resource and food source, and also allows this tropical dream to be exported to distant countries with different, colder, less sunny skies. A product, well known across the globe, is extracted from the dried coconut meat, coprah oil, that is used most notably in the production of monoï®. Infused with the tiare flower (Gardenia taitensis), this traditional Polynesian cosmetic product is used as a bronzing oil, for massage, or as a moisturizing after-sun, and has its own “appellation d’origine”.
Self-sufficiency, at the heart of the coconut plantation …
Jean-Marius Raapoto and Ahutiare, his wife, grew up on the family property and today have acquired nearly 40 hectares coconut plantation, which is maintained, respecting the most rigorous specifications of organic agriculture. The raw material that they use, the fresh coconut meat, is in fact certified by an international control agency. But the entire method of producing the virgin coconut oil is also carried out following a rigorous protocol, that guarantees its nutritional and organoleptic (odor, taste, texture) qualities. The production unit, built within the coconut plantation itself, is totally self-sufficient, with solar panels for electricity, an osmosis unit and pump for drinking water, resulting in a top of the range ecological product.
However, for several years now a handful of atolls in the Tuamotu have launched themselves in the manufacture of cold-pressed coconut oil, an extraction process that avoids heating the fresh coconut meat. This produces an oil that has certain dietary and cosmetic properties that are recommended by nutritionists and health advisors. Niau is one such atoll, part of the Fakarava UNESCO biosphere reserve, situated 400 km north of the island of Tahiti. For several years, the island has a virgin coconut oil processing plant, which is certified with the organic label. This initiative is also an opportunity to launch into the sustainable development of the island, whilst protecting the biodiversity. The venture, started in 2008, as the idea of Raapotos [and has been developed since in partnership with the association called Ia hotu e ia heeuri to u fenua o Niau (Let my island, Niau, be green and fertile)], was an opportunity to transform the atoll into an entirely « organic island ». If the manufacture of this oil, which is certified to be an « organically farmed product », started initially to be marketed through the grapevine, it is today commercialized by the large supermarkets and specialist food stores in Tahiti, at the Tahiti-Faa’a airport duty free stores, and in a handful of pharmacies. It is also looking to develop its distribution on the international market as well.
The coconuts are first collected from the surrounding coconut plantation, then sent to the factory, where they are sorted. This careful sorting retains only the best coconuts: once selected and weighed – you need around 13 to produce a liter of virgin oil – the shells are split, and the pulp is extracted, grated and pressed. The coconut « milk » that is extracted is not the final product that can be decanted; it requires centrifugation to separate the oil and the water. Several stages of refrigeration and filtering assure that the oil produced by the first cold-pressing is absolutely pure. Exacting standards of cleanliness are required of the employees and the machines are rigorously maintained to ensure the impeccable hygiene of the end product. The oil has been classified as being « triple A quality » by an agroalimentary analysis, carried out by a laboratory in the Bordeaux region, France. The product is aimed to be marketed as a high end product, under the trademark Niau®, with a packaging that is inspired by the local crafts (woven in coconut husk fibre, nape). The eco-concept, with its 100% recyclable packaging, with a low impact on the environment, zero wastes and exclusively local production, gives the final touch to this top of the range product.
A rigorous process, from the start to finish of the production chain
Forty hectares of coconut plantation maintained according to the strict specifications of organic farming practice, triple certified (Europe, USA, Pacific region) by the international control body Bioagricert. The husking of the coconuts is done directly in the coconut plantation where the extraction facility is located. This first step already avoids the inconvenience of long-distance transportation of raw materials, reducing the « carbon footprint ». Once split, the pulp is removed and mechanically grated then pressed, without heating, to extract the coconut milk. Then comes the delicate step, that requires special machines which use advanced technologies, developed by the medical industry, to carry out a double cold centrifugation. A stage that is carried out in a special room, under uncompromisingly hygienic conditions.
Jean-Marius and Ahutiare Raapoto : “In this country, I believe”
The calculated gamble, which seems to be paying off, was taken by Jean-Marius Raapoto and his wife, Ahutiare, the daughter of Francis Sanford (an important figure in local politics, ancient mayor of the town of Faa’a and once vice-president of the French Polynesian government council, in the 1960s and 70s). Jean-Marius himself, once the Minister for Education in French Polynesia, with a doctorate in (Polynesian) language studies, notably encouraged the practice of ’ōrero (the traditional art of oratory) in schools. Upon his retirement, he wanted to demonstrate his lifelong commitment for the internal development of the local economy, as the slogan of the political party he created, Tireo, says: “In this country, I believe”.
“Let my island, Niau, be green and fertile”
Niau, is one of the few uplifted atolls in French Polynesia, with several caves. The island rather unusually has a lagoon that has been entirely isolated from the ocean, since the last interglacial period; creating a unique ecosystem, with brackish water that most often is a greenish-yellow color. This specificity made it an ideal candidate to be listed within the « Biosphere Reserve * » to which it belongs, along with the rest of the commune of Fakarava, which encompasses seven atolls. The economy of this small island – around 30 km2 with barely 250 inhabitants – relies in the large part, like all islands in the Tuamotu archipelago, on the production of coprah. However, the production of virgin coconut oil, certified by organic farming specifications, is the first step on the road to making this associated commune of Niau, with the support of its mayor, into an entirely « organic » island. For this reason, the Raapoto couple have already brought and planted more than a thousand fruit trees – including figs, that are particularly adapted to the limestone soils of the island – and the island’s honey production could also be given the sought-after label. Organic charcoal, produced from the coconut shells, is also being produced. The Raapotos would like to see all these different professional avenues being developed to benefit the inhabitants of this island, which has been somewhat left behind by the more general economic development of French Polynesia.
* UNESCO’s acceptance of the « Biosphere Reserve » designation is recognition for exemplary regions of the earth that reconcile the conservation of biodiversity alongside sustainable development. In Niau, it helps to the protect the island’s endemic birds, the kote’ute’u (Todiramphus gambieri) – a kingfisher – or a palm that is also endemic to the atoll, koko Niau (Pritchardia periculum).
We warmly thank the population of the village of Tupana for their kind welcome.