Report – By Karen Abplanalp
Uaea Apelu from Lefaga in Upolu is a health educator, Samoan Rugby under-17s coach and exporter and producer of organic coconut oil. He was invited to the investSamoa conference in Auckland this week.
Apelu calls himself a “nutologist”, a term he has coined to describe his expertise with coconuts.
“I am very well versed with coconuts, getting coconuts and producing coconuts,” he says.
The idea to produce coconut oil has been a while in the making.
“About five years ago, my daughter was in Wellington. When her partner came and asked me if I know anything about coconuts, I said, ‘No – but I know a lot about coconuts’.”
In the 1980s,Uaea exported about 500,000 coconuts a month to Australia.
He began researching and experimenting five years ago to work out how to get produce coconut oil.
Eight months ago he got his product.
“There is a huge demand all over the world – in America, in Australia in Europe – because of the benefits of the oil.
“I was a bit cynical at first because when I was sending coconuts to Australia and New Zealand there was a lot of bad wrap about how the coconut fat makes people fat and gives them high cholesterol.
“It was all rubbish; it was lot of bad press and misinformation put out by the soybean industry about the bad effects of coconuts. Now I know the science and I know it is healthy.”
Uaea says that 50 years ago no one had diabetes in Samoa and links the increase in the disease to coconut disappearing from the Samoan diet.
“Samoans are not big vegetable eaters; vegetables were introduced into Samoa, but not to the diet,” he said.
“The only thing they were eating at every meal was their breadfruit, bananas, taro, yams but with coconut cream or juice. That’s the only thing you can attribute their health and physical appearance.
“The men were handsome and the women were beautiful. Now, when they stopped taking that into their diet we started getting problems.
Now there is very little e coconut in their diet, they have it maybe once a week. There is a lot of processed food being pushed down their throats.”
Apelu says nobody has seen a doctor in the last five years since his family have been cooking with coconut oil.
“We put it in our coffee and tea. This is how they take it in America, as a health product,” he said.
Apelu is also here to bring the Samoan under-17 rugby team here, who are playing a New Zealand team at St Pauls on Saturday 29 and Australia in Hamilton on the following Tuesday.
Former All Black and Manu Samoa player Michael Jones Jones said: “It is a privilege to be part of this, not only as a Kiwi but as a Samoan. We have a huge Samoan community here.
“We are all very much connected to Samoa even though we live here.
“Our company, Reef Group, are a Kiwi/Pacific/Samoan company, has been shipping into the Pacific for the last 50 years.
Jones said the company had exported out of the Pacific into Asia, NZ, Europe and the Pacific.
“We have been showcasing a wide range of nonu products, specifically a blended nonu product, which is nonu mixed with kiwifruit, nonu mixed apple, nonu mixed orange and an energy nonu drink which has gone down really well,” he said.
“As Samoans, we’ve been drinking or eating nonu since we were young. The world found out about it in the last 20 or 30 years and it is seen as a super fruit, which means it has 100 fold nutritional benefits than an average fruit.”
Jones said nonu sat alongside other super fruits such as acai berry from the Amazon and the goji berry from the Himalayas.
Both nonu and the coconut oil are organic.
“Nonu was brought by our Polynesian forefathers from Asia, it was brought in the canoes when we did the long haul voyaging from Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan,” said Jones.
It was known as their medicine kit – they always took the nonu – the leaves could be used, and the fruit could be used for food as well as medicine. It was their thing for survival and medicine. The traditional healers still use nonu medicinally.”
Melbourne chocolate maker and professor of entrepreneurship education, Howard Frederick of Deakin University, is looking for investors to build a chocolate processing plant in Samoa.
“Cocoa was first planted by German settlers in Samoa in the 1880s; you can still find trees that are 120 years old. Samoa was a member in good standing of the international cocoa organisation (ICO) for decades; it was rated as one of the top cocoa producers in the world.
It was designated as FF, which means Fine and Flavourful – or the top 3 percent of cocoa, by the ICO.
“1200 families are still producing cocoa. In the 1990s there were two devastating cyclones, followed by a drought and a collapse in cocoa prices, Frederick said.
“In spite of this, Samoan farmers grow some of the finest cocoa beans in the world.”
He said that his company, Cocoa Samoa, was designed to revive the cocoa industry after 20 years.
“Most of the 1200 farmers are in their 40s, 50s, 60s because of this collapse of the market and if we wait any longer to revive it, the capacity of Samoa to produce fine chocolate is going to suffer.”
“Our idea is to build a factory to produce higher level value chocolate. You can’t make money out of beans anymore.
“When I purchase cocoa at the farm gate I can sell that cocoa in Australia for $A7 to $A8 a kilo. When I have made my truffles out of it, I can sell them for $A132 a kilo.”
Karen Abplanalp is a Grey Lynn photographer, writer and contributor to Pacific Scoop.