If you thought coconuts were only good for sipping on a tropical beach, think again. Coconuts are one of the most versatile fruits in the world. There’s even a myth about coconut water being a substitute for blood plasma that started in the 1900s. In the twisted theory, it is said that coconut water has a level of sugar and other salts that makes it possible to be added to the bloodstream. Some versions of the myth describe how coconut water was used during World War II in tropical areas for emergency transfusions. While medical experts debunk this information, coconuts are indeed highly nutritional. Better yet, coconuts are adaptable. They can serve as milk, flour, chips, and crafts. According to Grand View Research, the global coconut by-product market size is expected to reach $95.64 billion by 2025.
For a small business like Funmi Coconuts, an indigenous brand that solely utilizes the heterogeneity of coconuts to produce healthy food varieties, keying into this market was the right decision. The brand produces by-products ranging from their top-selling coconut swallow to conventional coconut chips and flakes. They also produce coconut spreads, flour, oil, milk, water, and desiccated coconuts. Since 2017, the brand has found its way into the homes of many Nigerians, no small feat in an industry already dominated by cheaper yet carbohydrate-dense substitutes. “The initial acceptance rate was slow. We had a lot of people say they would rather buy a bowl of garri than spend money on a box of our coconut swallow,” says Funmi Tuoyo, Founder of Funmi Coconuts, also known as the coconut village.
Funmi became fascinated by coconuts a few years ago when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Her mum’s oncologists had advised her mum to cut out carbohydrate-dense foods from her diet. During her research on healthier alternatives, Funmi came across coconuts. Despite popular beliefs, coconuts are low in carbohydrates and are a good alternative for diabetic and cancer patients. Sadly, her mum passed, but Funmi was sold on the idea of healthier food alternatives. “There’s a whole world of healthier and accessible options out there. Unfortunately, these options are not very popular in our society,” she says.
The first time Funmi tried making coconut oil, it ended in a mess. She had carefully followed instructions from a YouTube tutorial, but the by-product remained dense. “The internet is a great place to learn new things, but I did not know a thing about coconut production. I realized I would only waste resources if I continued relying on the internet,” she says. “Besides, there is so much more to running an actual coconut business that you can not learn online,” she adds. Unfortunately, at the time, there were not many places in the city of Warri, Delta State, where she could learn the coconut business from. So, she raised some funds and travelled to Lagos to attend a month-long coconut training program. “My husband was so supportive. He was my first investor. He invested an entire month’s salary into my Lagos trip, which was a big deal because, at that time, I was unemployed and just starting a family.”
The underdog in the Funmi Coconuts product line has to be the coconut swallow. It is a low-carb dish made by completely de-milking the coconut meat to powder form, after which it is dehydrated and pre-mixed with psyllium, a healthy binder, and can be eaten with soups and stews. Funmi coconut swallow comes in two variants- the coconut fufu which is pre-mixed with psyllium husk, and the coconut amala, mixed with unripe plantain flour. A 1kg box of Funmi-coconut costs 3,500 and is enough to last one adult, 8 servings.
Figuring out the coconut swallow mix recipe took Funmi a long time, but the end result has been one some customers swear by. Fitness enthusiast Alexandra Orlando insists she is not a fan of swallows, but when she had the coconut fufu mix, she was hooked. “It is really good!” she says. “If you are the type that swears you can’t live without eating swallows, you should definitely consider it as an alternative.” Reviews like Alexandra’s are not new to the coconut village. One customer, Ifeoma, swears by the coconut oil after she says it helped relieve heartburn, while another customer says the oil had been a great substitute once when she forgot her toothpaste.
During the 2020 lockdown, when many people adopted ketogenic diet plans under the guise of making healthier choices, coconut variants featured on many plates around the world. Though the pandemic is over and many have returned to their unhealthy ways, coconut by-products are still a favourite amongst weight watchers. “One thing I always look forward to is the invigorating effect this one fruit can have on other people,” Funmi heartily adds.
Running such a niched business within the food industry comes with challenges. For example, despite the fact that about 22 states in Nigeria grow coconuts, the country still imports 70% of the popular fruit. As a coastal region, Nigeria has the perfect climate for growing coconuts, yet Funmi opines that the species grown in Nigeria are not as effective in production. “I don’t know if it is our soil, but the coconuts we grow here don’t give us what we want,” Funmi notes. This means she has to source most of her coconuts from neighbouring countries like Ghana, a decision that comes at a cost.
Recently, Funmi and a few other coconut entrepreneurs tried to cross-breed the Ghanaian coconut and the Nigerian breed. They were unsuccessful. But she hasn’t given up just yet. “One of our long-term goals is to own a coconut farm,” she says. Nigeria stands to earn over N20 billion yearly from coconut and its derivatives. A 10-hectare farmland of hybrid coconut can earn revenue of between N16 million – N20 million annually for the next 30-60 years. But getting people to buy into that prospect can be a hassle.
Early on, Funmi was happy to sell a handful of items daily, but today several hundred is the norm. Boxes of Funmi Coconuts products can be seen on shelves in supermarkets within the country and ordered from anywhere in the world. And this is a testament to her growth. Over the years she has developed her recipes and trends, having to relearn and unlearn production methods, some of which she teaches in the classes she holds regularly. Through these classes, she has taught students from Dubai, Cameroon, and Tanzania.
Apart from the monetary benefits of doing business, Funmi gets satisfaction knowing she is influencing healthy lifestyles and filling a necessary gap. “Recently, someone asked me how we have stayed in business all these years, and it got me thinking. Honestly, I am not sure. But I know we have and we will keep growing. There’s still much we can explore. At the end of the day it’s either we win or we win, there is no going back for Funmi Coconuts.”