Coconut Oil from Sri Lanka – Serendipol (Pvt.) Ltd.
Coconut oil is the main ingredient in Dr. Bronner’s soaps and lends them their rich and cleansing lather. When Dr. Bronner’s decided to shift its supply of agricultural raw materials to Fair Trade & Organic (FTO) sources, developing a source of coconut oil was of highest priority. In 2005, with our Sri Lankan partners Gordon de Silva and Sonali Pandithasekera, we began to search for a suitable factory site in Sri Lanka’s “Coconut Triangle.” We formed our first sister company, Serendipol (Pvt.) Ltd. and bought a run-down coconut processing mill on a seven-acre plot near the town of Kuliyapitiya. With support from our friends at Wansleben Architekten we rebuilt and expanded it to produce virgin coconut oil (VCO) in an esthetic and functional factory setting. At the same time, we recruited family farmers for conversion to organic practices, set up a Fair Trade structure and began production in June of 2007.
Since then, Serendipol has become a global leader in the production of FTO VCO. We supply Dr. Bronner’s with cosmetic grade oil for its soaps, and we also supply them and several other committed firms in the U.S. and EU with food grade VCO. Fast-growing demand for both grades has helped Serendipol expand far beyond initial expectations. Today, Serendipol is a symbol of what a well-managed FTO project can achieve in rural areas.
With over 900 organic farmers and 275 staff, Serendipol has a significant impact on local economic and community development. We pay fair prices to farmers and support them with compost and training, thus improving soil fertility, yields and profitability.
The workers in Serendipol’s coconut oil factory enjoy working conditions and compensation uncommon in the industry — and in a region that has few reliable jobs to offer to its growing rural population of non- and semi-skilled workers. We offer our staff opportunities for personal and professional development and practice a management style of cooperation with respect. Our participatory and hands-on style of management now increasingly attracts professionals in accounting, engineering, agricultural services and administration who want to contribute to responsible rural development in Kuliyapitiya.
Serendipol’s factory showcases the potential of a great renewable resource, the coconut palm. All byproducts have value-added uses: the coconut husks are sold and then processed into fiber for rope, doormats and erosion control; the shells are burned for energy in our boiler or sold for the production of charcoal and activated carbon; the seed cake is sold for animal feed and food; some of the coconut water is sold to a local exporter; and the balance is treated biologically and used for irrigation in the company’s garden. Other than common packaging waste, the factory leaves no waste behind.
The Fair Trade premium paid by Dr. Bronner’s and other customers has been used for a range of community development projects, such as setting up a composting operation to support farmers with organic fertilizer at cost (co-funded by the German aid organization GIZ), supporting clinics with critical medical equipment, renovating schools and supporting vocational training for disadvantaged adolescents, cleaning up and revitalizing water reservoirs overgrown by invasive plants and using the plant waste as raw material for compost, connecting remote villages to the power grid, and renovating dilapidated bridges.
A committee with broad-based representation selects these development projects, and Serendipol dedicates a full-time staff to overseeing their implementation — and making sure that money is not wasted. These projects are great opportunities for targeted and cooperative community development efforts for which there are no funds available otherwise. Our experience shows that producing VCO can be sustainable and fair, while supporting rural development.
Watch our “Coconut Rock” video to learn more.