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The sustainable ag venture reviving Vietnam's coconut groves

April 06, 2024
topic:Sustainable Agriculture
tags:#Vietnam, #Sustainable Agriculture, #indigenous knowledge, #climate resilience, #sea level rise
by:Alex Nguyen
The Sokfarm initiative has contributed to preserving thousands of coconut trees in Vietnam's Mekong Delta while rejuvenating the region's indigenous knowledge and cultural practices.

In 2018, after receiving a call from her father about plummeting coconut prices, Chal Thi decided to leave her job at a cocoa production startup and returned to her hometown, Tra Vinh city in southern Vietnam, with her husband. Faced with the potential loss of coconut trees due to their declining market value, Chan Tai and her husband were determined to protect and preserve this regional specialty. 

As a Khmer in Tra Vinh, a city with a significant Khmer population, Chal Thi deeply understands the importance of coconut trees to their way of life. Traditionally, growing coconuts involves harvesting coconut water, oil, or copra - the dried pulp used in various products. The practice of harvesting coconut flower nectar, a longstanding Khmer tradition, was lost with changes in agricultural methods and as farming evolved. 

"The industry of collecting coconut nectar is the industry that Khmer people in Tra Vinh used to do in the past because they did not have fresh water to drink," Chal Thi told FairPlanet. "As there was no cane sugar available," she added, "they collected it to cook with or eat in the house."     

Holding a master's degree in food technology, Chal Thi recognised the untapped potential of coconut nectar. Together with her husband, she decided to launch Sokfarm, a business focused on producing and selling products derived from coconut flower nectar, tapping into an innovative and sustainable market.

Reviving an ancient tradition

Sokfarm, meaning "happy farming" in Khmer, symbolises the founders' vision of promoting joy through preserving the coconut tree's value, supporting farmers and fostering sustainable livelihoods based on the region's indigenous knowledge, the couple shared with FairPlanet.

However, harvesting the essence of coconut nectar, which the couple described as the "quintessence of heaven and earth," requires the skilled touch of hands that, though calloused from labour, become gentle when handling the delicate coconut flowers.

Only skilled workers, they said, can assess the precise force needed; too strong, and the coconut flower is damaged, too gentle, and the coconut won't release its nectar.

The coconut nectar harvesting process involves careful selection and preparation of the flowers, they added, requiring deep knowledge of the coconut tree. Farmers carefully select the right flowers, preventing premature blooming. They then position the flowers to collect nectar and gently massage the blossoms twice per day to stimulate nectar flow.

This seemingly simple process is crucial to the release of more nectar. At the same time, they softly and evenly tap the flower stalks with a small wooden pestle.

Finally, they make a thin incision on the coconut flower and position a container beneath to catch the dripping sap. Expertise in assessing soil nutrition, pH levels and weather conditions, the founders highlights, is crucial for the appropriate care of the coconut plants.

Coconut trees stand as a resilient crop against climate change effects like saltwater intrusion, making them suitable for cultivation in the Mekong Delta's changing environment. They thrive in saline coastal soils with low fertility and can tolerate salinity levels of 4-10 per cent, which makes them adaptable to prolonged droughts. 

And while coconut trees might not bear fruit due to salinity, they continue to produce flowers for nectar harvesting. This makes the shift from fruit to nectar collection a viable strategy for Sokfarm, especially in facing saltwater intrusion challenges in coastal areas like Tra Vinh.

Environmentally sustainable, economically viable 

At first, Sokfarm's concept faced skepticism from farmers who doubted that coconut nectar could yield a significant income. However, after demonstrating its income-generating potential over time, they claim to have shown the value and viability of their approach.

Earning 6-10 million VND monthly (approximately USD 240-400) from coconut nectar harvesting has proven to be a significant source of income, especially for older farmers aged 55-60 and the Khmer community facing employment challenges. 

The founders claim that farmers now see the value in maintaining coconut trees for nectar production as a viable income source, rather than cutting them down due to low fruit yields. This approach, they said, not only secures a decent income but also aids in adapting to climate change conditions in the region, preserving a vital part of their environment and heritage. Deeply rooted coconuts, they highlighted, can protect the living conditions of the soil.

"The coconut nectar industry will be one of the industries that help farmers in Mekong Delta adapt to changes in saline intrusion," Chal Thi stated. "Firstly, with stormy weather, the coconut tree will not collapse. In addition, coconut trees also have very few pests. Regarding the salinity, while facing the high surface level, the coconut tree is still alive, there are still flowers, although the fruit yield may be atrophied but still get coconut nectar." 

The Mekong Delta in Vietnam is not just renowned for being the world's second-largest rice producer, but is also celebrated for its extensive coconut cultivation. Recent estimates show the Delta is home to over 130,000 hectares of coconut groves making up nearly 79 per cent of Vietnam's total coconut farmland. But with the decreasing profitability of coconut trees, finding sustainable alternatives is crucial. Coconut nectar collection emerges as a promising solution, Sokfarm's founders pointed out, offering a new direction for the future of coconut farming in the region.

By focusing on coconut nectar production, farmers can increase their income three to five times compared to traditional coconut farming. The founders of Sokfarm aim to partner with at least 1,000 farmers by 2030 and potentially create jobs for over 300 individuals in the local community.

So far, the initiative has established a network of farmers for harvesting nectar from coconut flowers, leading to the creation of seven organic coconut gardens. Starting with just one worker, Sokfarm has now expanded significantly, employing 33 workers and collaborating with nearly 50 households.

Furthermore, the initiative has gained recognition not only in Vietnam but also internationally, as it started to export its first shipments to Japan and the Netherlands. This achievement has positioned Sokfarm as a reputable agro-product brand in Japan.

Sokfarm's initiative also significantly improved the livelihoods of the Khmer community, one of the poorest ethnic groups in the Mekong Delta region. Over 90 per cent of Sokfarm's workforce is ethnic Khmer, with women representing 60 per cent of these employees. 

In an interview with Fair Planet, Nguyen Thi Thu Nga, director of the Promoting Entrepreneurial Spirit project for rural women in Tra Vinh province, said: "The coconut nectar industry is following the world's consumption trend, because consumers are increasingly looking for sweeteners like coconut nectar, a natural sweetness to replace refined sugar. The processing of magnetic products from coconut nectar, [as is the case in] Sokfarm's method, is a good suggestion for conversion in production development model based on local culture, combined with regional and technological advantages in the context of ongoing saltwater intrusion fierce in the Mekong Delta. "

Sokfarm's founders further emphasised the critical role of farmers in the value chain, from sourcing raw materials to the final product consumption. Collaborating closely with coconut cultivators and nectar collectors, they said, is pivotal for maintaining input quality and building the long-term success of their venture. 

But it isn't all smooth sailing for the initiative, as Sokfarm faces the challenge of ensuring sustainable income for farmers to prevent job abandonment and managing product quality. They strive to maintain a sustainable and satisfying agricultural model that aligns with market economics, which often focuses on profit and quantity, necessitating significant effort to balance these aspects effectively.

This article is part of FairPlanet's Future of Food series, curated by our Asia Desk Editor, Chermaine Lee, with the backing of the Solution Journalism Network's LEDE fellowship.

Image by Zdeněk Macháček.

Article written by:
Alex Nguyen
Embed from Getty Images
Holding a master's degree in food technology, Chal Thi recognised the untapped potential of coconut nectar.
Embed from Getty Images
So far, the initiative has established a network of farmers for harvesting nectar from coconut flowers, leading to the creation of seven organic coconut gardens.
Embed from Getty Images
Sokfarm has now expanded significantly, employing 33 workers and collaborating with nearly 50 households.