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Mary Riddle headshot

Why Unilever Is Betting Big on Shorter Coconut Trees

By Mary Riddle
coconut trees

Unilever is hoping that its new breed of miniature coconut trees will lead to big improvements for farmers. 

Coconut trees provide many common ingredients in popular consumer products, most notably coconut sugar. However, coconut farming is risky. Coconut trees are tall, typically around 100 feet high, and to collect the nectar needed for coconut sugar production, farmers must climb to the top of the trees with buckets and knives in order to harvest nectar by hand. 

In order to improve farmer safety and secure future supply of coconut sugar, Unilever and the Indonesian Coconut Institute are releasing a new breed of coconut trees that only grow to approximately one-third of the height of a typical coconut tree, which should make nectar harvesting a significantly safer activity. This new coconut tree, called the Genjah Kuning Bali, also reaches maturity in four years rather than the typical seven. 

Developing and releasing this new tree breed is one of the actions Unilever says it has taken to improve the sustainability of the coconut industry since signing the Sustainable Coconut Charter, an initiative to improve incomes and livelihoods of smallholder farmers, enhance supply chain traceability, prevent deforestation and mitigate the climate crisis. 

Short coconut trees: a new approach to boost farmers’ livelihoods

Before the planting season begins, Unilever establishes a list of farmers interested in partnering with Unilever. Then, the company partners with local suppliers and nurseries to distribute coconut seedlings to farmers, free-of-charge. In turn, the farmers commit to applying more responsible agricultural practices to ensure the trees grow well. 

Climate change has created new burdens for coconut farmers, so Unilever has partnered with Balit Palma, an institute focused on palm and coconut research in Indonesia, to offer educational services for farmers in good agricultural practices and climate change resilience. 

“Unilever also works closely with the farmer community to build a service delivery model, which should help farmers access finance, fertilizers and ensure offtake of their coconut sugar,” explained Clement Jaloux, Unilever’s Procurement Manager, Supplier Development South East Asia. “Taken together, farmers can increase their incomes by farming their plots without needing to clear forests. Keeping trees standing is an important way to slow the progress of climate change.”

Harnessing technology to improve sustainability

Developing new breeds of coconut trees is not the only high-tech agricultural solution Unilever is providing for farmers. The company has also developed a smartphone app to help identify agricultural issues, provide farmers with advice, and forecast coconut sugar output.  

The app also helps the company monitor deforestation and environmental degradation using satellite technology. “All farmers and their land involved in the mini coconut trees initiative are registered using digital technology. Once this process is underway, deforestation is monitored via digital platforms, where deforestation alerts are tracked on a monthly basis,” Jaloux explained. He added that the platforms “use geolocation technology to enhance the traceability and transparency of our supply chains.”

“It’s exciting progress; this is technology that just wasn’t available a few years ago,” Jaloux said.

Unilever’s future plans for coconut program growth

The first 100-hectare test plot of Genjah Kuning Bali trees was planted in 2017, and since then, Unilever says it has scaled up production at a rapid pace. As of June 2022, Unilever says it has planted the equivalent of 3,300 hectares with their miniature coconut trees in collaboration with 3,600 smallholder farmers. The number of hectares planted with Genjah Kuning Bali coconuts is expected to grow as farmers replace their older, less-productive trees with the new, smaller variety. Unilever’s timing is critical, as coconut trees in Indonesia are quickly aging out of peak productivity. By 2026, Unilever will aim to source half of its coconut sugar supply from this new variety of tree.

Image credit: Unilever

Mary Riddle headshot

Mary Riddle is the director of sustainability consulting services for Obata. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. She is currently based in Florence, Italy.

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