Technology, innovation turn trash into treasure
The coconut tree is called the tree of life because all its parts have value. The fruit is edible and can be made into copra, an ingredient in coconut oil and soap. The leaves are used for roofing or walling material. The trunk provides cheap and sturdy lumber. The shell of the coconut fruit is made into charcoal. Even the husk is used as fuel for cooking.
Recent innovations have further raised the value of the coconut husk. And Juboken Enterprises, based in Camalig, Albay, has been at the forefront of these innovations in the Philippines.
Juboken was established in 1994 by Dr. Justino R. Arboleda, former dean of the Bicol University’s College of Agriculture. Dr. Arboleda turned entrepreneur to prove that technologies developed in universities can become viable business ventures.
A finding from the Bicol University’s many research projects showed that coconut fiber possesses almost the same strength, flexibility, and durability as abaca fiber. All it takes is to strip the fiber from the husk in a process called decortication.
Dr. Arboleda designed a decorticating machine specifically for this purpose. Then he enlisted local handicraft makers to make the fiber into twine. The local manufacturers are experts in abaca fiber and needed little training to shift to making coconut twine.
“Coconut husks were once mainly used as fuel in the copra-making process. There was so much of it that a lot ended up being thrown away. The discovery of coconut fiber as a viable alternative to abaca changed how farmers look at coconut husk,” explains Agnes Nebres, who manages the Juboken facility in Camalig.
Being made into twine is the coconut fiber’s first step in its journey toward maximum usefulness. It can be used in so many ways.
Its first foray into prominence was through the coconet or erosion control nets used in slope protection and keeping roads safe from landslides caused by soil erosion and natural disasters.
Coconets have proven to be more effective in preventing landslides than rip-rap walls or concrete wall barriers because its organic properties make it cling to soil and rock. Adding vegetation like vetiver grass further increases the net’s holding capacity.
At the peak of the demand for coconets, Juboken produced 800 rolls per week (one roll = 50 meters). Most were exported, while the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) acquired the rest.
With increased demand came the need to raise the enterprise’s capitalization. The Department of Agriculture provided support for equipment, but Juboken had to source the rest of its operating expenses elsewhere.
This is where the Peace and Equity Foundation (PEF) came in. PEF released a PhP10-million loan to Juboken, to cover production expenses such employee salaries and payment to subcontractors.
However, coconet was becoming such a viable product that many players soon joined the fray, taking away market share from Juboken.
“We used to have 70 percent market share, but now it is down to 50 percent,” Nebres shared.
With the growing competition in the coconet market, Juboken created new applications for cocofiber. Gardening materials such as cocofiber pots, cocofiber wattle, and cocopeat have become popular among gardening enthusiasts. Mattresses stuffed with coco fiber are also gaining popularity.
Producing gardening materials became a lifeline for Juboken at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Government imposed strict lockdowns and made many people turn toward gardening to fight boredom and stress, and to grow vegetables in their home gardens.
With more players in the market, the once abundant “throw-away” coconut husk soon saw a shortage. Also coconut farmers were discouraged from harvesting due to the fluctuating prices of copra in the world market. Fewer nuts, thus fewer husks.
Juboken soon had to source its raw material from Quezon province, which raised transport costs.
Also, Juboken found that many of its small subcontractors — those with no buffer capital to tide them over while waiting for payment from Juboken – have stopped taking work from Juboken due to the latter’s delayed payments. Juboken mostly had institutional buyers, which stretched out their payments, resulting in Juboken’s delay in paying its subcontractors.
Those with spare funds, other income sources, or access to bridge financing, continued to subcontract with Juboken. These subcontractors stayed loyal because they became successful while working with Juboken over the years.
Agapita Mora, 68, a resident of Barangay (village) Cabraran Pequeño in Camalig, has been a subcontractor for Juboken since it started in 1994. Like many of Juboken’s subcontractors, she used to produce abaca handicrafts. Now she makes twines from coco fiber.
Depending on the availability of fiber, Agapita and her workers produce 5,000 rolls of 12-meter-long ropes a week (the equivalent of 12 truckloads), for which they are paid PhP1.50 to PhP2 per rope.
Because of her advanced age, she now focuses on making hanging coco planters, making about 10 such planters a day. Working as a Juboken subcontractor covered Agapita and her family’s needs over the years and enabled her to help her neighbors earn extra income.
“I was widowed at 45 and became my family’s sole breadwinner. Juboken’s timely offer of subcontracting work enabled me to build my own house and put all my five children through school. It helped us a lot,” Agapita shares.
Benito and Leni Abellano of Barangay Matanag, Legazpi City, share the same story. The couple have been subcontractors for Juboken since 2015. The couple make ropes and weave coconets. At peak production levels and depending on the availability of raw material, they and their villagemates can produce 800 twines a day or 25 rolls a week.
Although not on a scale such as Agapita’s, the Abellano couple also credits Juboken for helping them with their livelihood, particularly after Benito suffered a stroke and could no longer work as tricycle driver.
Competition and reduced supply have affected the enterprise’s sales and profitability, but it cannot be denied that Juboken pioneered the cococoir enterprise in the Philippines.
Dr. Arboleda and his team have shown that a university project can not only be a profitable enterprise but also a source of livelihood for others, with the help of partners such as PEF.
Indeed, one man’s trash can become another man’s treasure. All it takes for that transformation to happen is innovation, as proven by an academic and visionary who dared to dream big.