Is it nuts to sell copra?: Dry coconut selling and smallholder adaptive capacity in PNG

Tim Sharp & Geraldine Tilden

A cluster of small stalls stretch out along the rural roadside at Mai in Kimbe Bay, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea (PNG). These stalls – makeshift bush material shelters – have been built by families from a nearby village to enable them to sell their produce to the passing traffic along the New Britain Highway. Mangoes, bananas, betel nut and a few other items are sold, but the main item on sale in all of these roadside stalls is coconuts, either bundles of dry coconuts (the cream from which is a key ingredient in local cooking), or green drinking coconuts. These “family markets” are a short distance from the vendors’ houses, and coconuts are brought from nearby family coconut plantings to the roadside by wheelbarrow or by hand.

Most of these families earn their main income from oil palm, which dominates the landscape and local economy of the broader Hoskins-Bialla area. Cocoa was once an important household income source in the villages around Mai, but the arrival of Cocoa Pod Borer (CPB) in the late 2000s has made it barely worth harvesting the pods. Most of the families also have coconut plantings, but few still undertake the laborious task of cutting and drying their coconuts to produce copra for export. Copra prices have been low, and more can be earned, and with much less effort, selling the dry and green coconuts to highway travellers, people from the oil palm land settlement scheme areas to the east, and employees of the oil palm plantations. The marketing of coconuts, and fresh food marketing more broadly, now provides a good supplementary and regular source of income, particularly for women. This is now documented in a recently published report.

The report stems from initial observations by researchers in 2012-2013 of a marked increase in the roadside sale of dry coconuts in West New Britain. The volume of dry coconuts being sold in larger urban marketplaces has also increased. This trend had also emerged in neighbouring East New Britain. In response, as part of a larger investigation of food and income security among cocoa and oil palm smallholder households, researchers from Cocoa and Coconut Institute Limited, Oil Palm Research Association and Curtin University set out to examine the dry coconut trade at both large marketplaces and small roadside marketplaces in East New Britain, West New Britain and Milne Bay. The team sought to understand the place of dry coconut sales within smallholders’ broader livelihoods, and to understand why smallholders were diverting their coconuts to the dry coconut market in preference to selling them as copra.

The study found that the increase in trading of dry coconuts was explained by several factors, with a different combination of factors pertinent in different locations. One important driver is that smallholder commodity crop producers, including those producing copra, are sensitive to returns to labour and respond accordingly when relative returns to labour from different livelihood activities change. For this reason, smallholders typically have a range of income sources, and will shift more labour to livelihood activities where returns are improving relative to other livelihood options. Roadside dry coconut sales had emerged in part as a coping strategy in response to low copra prices, and the poor returns to labour on cocoa due to CPB, and vendors were taking advantage of the better returns from selling dry coconuts.

Another important explanation was the loss of income from cocoa, especially for smallholder households in East New Britain. Following the collapse of household incomes resulting from the impact of CPB, and periodic low prices of copra, many women in East New Britain responded by increasing their participation in local marketplaces. Because many cocoa growers had coconut palms intercropped with their cocoa, selling dry coconuts was an easy supplementary source of income that could be adopted immediately to reduce the impact of CPB on household income insecurity. This was less important in West New Britain, because although most coconut sellers grew cocoa, oil palm was their major income source.

Dry coconut sales also grew in prominence because it provided women with a modest income that could be earned frequently and relatively easily. Having the opportunity to sell dry coconuts is highly valued by women as many are compelled to seek supplementary incomes to meet immediate household needs and daily living costs. In PNG, men often assert control over income earned from export cash cropping, however women are typically able to have much greater control over income earned from marketing fresh produce. Roadside selling also provided a way women could earn money that could readily accommodate their other responsibilities including childcare.

Despite low incomes from coconuts, in the form of both copra and dry coconuts sold in marketplaces, the report emphasises the importance of coconuts to livelihoods. The multiple uses of coconuts as a crop – being able to be used for household consumption and other household uses, and sold both to export markets and domestically – means the crop makes a valuable contribution to household resilience and food security, and smallholders’ capacity to adapt to different livelihood threats.

The report also provides a valuable snapshot of fresh food marketplaces in contemporary PNG. The report reaffirms the prominent role of women in the country’s marketplaces, and also documents some important changes in these marketplaces, including the rise of marketplace reselling by urban resident vendors (also see here), and an increased sale of manufactured goods in marketplaces.

Full reference:

Sharp, T., Tilden, G., Peter, E., Koczberski, G., Germis, E., Nailina, R. and Ryan, S.
(2022). Flexible and adaptive livelihoods among smallholder producers: A study of coconut
selling and fresh food marketplaces in Papua New Guinea
. Pacific Livelihoods Research
, Curtin University, Perth.