Tender coconut, which was a 'footpath commodity' till recently, has now got a double promotion to posh corporate offices in Bangalore. It's Health Magic Natural Foods, a twenty-one months-old firm that has succeeded in carving an altogether new market slot for tender coconut.

Interestingly, this is perhaps the only value-adding industry of its type in India. 'In fact', clarifies Yogesha H R, 29, the brain behind this novel enterprise, 'we do only minimum processing. But since ours is a pioneering industry, we had to start from scratch and overcome many challenges.'

Pic: Yajna Mangalore.

Today, Health Magic sells 1500 – 2000 tender coconuts every day. Their main clientele reads like a who's who of city's software companies. Employees of giant software companies like Infosys, Wipro, IBM, Accenture, and Honeywell are their regular customers. "They are so satisfied with the product that if we fail to deliver a single day, phone starts ringing", Yogesha points out.

Says Francis Pais, Manager, Big Bazar, Banashankari, Bangalore, "Tender Fresh looks so attractive and is very hygienic unlike what is available on roadside. Everyday they supply fresh stock. We have a regular clientele for that comprises both middle as well as high class. Feedback is very good."

Recently, for the World Coconut Day celebration organised by the Coconut Development Board (CDB) at New Delhi, this company's tender coconuts were sent by plane from Bangalore. After all, what's the specialty of these tender coconuts?

It's 'ready to serve'. Like a soft drink bottle or tetra pack, you can take it inside any office, drink and then dispose. Sold in a brand name as Tender Fresh, these tender coconuts, even after partial dehusking, retain their natural colour and taste for a long time. About 5-6 days under room temperature and upto three weeks under refrigeration.

Yogesha, a post-graduate in horticulture, has specialised in post harvest technology of horticultural crops from the University Of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Bangalore. For his post graduate thesis, he studied courses related to post harvest technology of many horticultural crops. Work experience in organizations like Xavier Institute of Management and Mother Dairy foods processing Limited, a subsidiary of National Dairy Development Board and a course in Agri clinic and Agri business training program by NABARD has helped him to acquire managerial skills. Sarvesh Kumar, a horticulture graduate hailing from a coconut grower's family of Tiptur (north-west of Bangalore, between Tumkur an Chikmagalur) is his partner.

How this novel idea struck to these youngsters? "When we were pursuing our course in horticulture, we students were often discussing about increasing the marketing prospects of tender coconut. We strongly believed that being a top health drink, it deserves far better marketing place than footpath. If it is possible to convert it into a form that is very convenient for those working in corporate offices to take it inside and drink it easily in a comfortable atmosphere. But, how to achieve this? This question was there uppermost in my mind since a number of years."

While surfing through internet, Yogesh was amazed to see some Thai products that perfectly matched his dream. Says he, "This practice is very common. Thailand exports young coconuts to USA, UK, etc., through refrigerated ship consignments. Inside the country also it is commonly available in hotels, restaurants and even in road sides." Thailand's enviable achievement in value-adding tender coconuts inspired these two youngsters to act on those lines.

But being altogether new idea to our country, there were nobody to guide them. Very little information was available on 'minimum processing'. For commercial scale marketing, trimming tender coconuts by hand was not enough. Moreover, by this method, getting uniformly shaped products is out of question. As such, the very first challenge was to search for a trimming machine.

Unfortunately, none were readily available. With no other way left, Yogesha decided to develop one. He started efforts in this line with the help of an engineer. Eight months of research finally succeeded. The machine they have developed has a capacity to trim 350 - 400 tender coconuts in eight hours.

India is the world's number three producer (22%) of coconuts. It lags slightly behind Indonesia (27%) and Philippines (23%). Thailand, with its negligible 3% production, has captured the number one position in value-adding tender coconuts in various forms.

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Generally, tender coconut loses its colour hours after trimming. Within two days, it turns ugly blackish; fungi starts growing over the trimmed surface. So, the next hurdle was to find out a suitable treatment to retain the natural colour. 'After trials with three different chemicals, we arrived at the right choice', recalls Yogesha. The R & D took more than a year, 'without a job and salary'. However, his horticulture education helped him a good deal. "Otherwise", recalls Yogesha, "such an idea would never have flashed in my mind."

Before starting their venture, these youngsters conducted a market study. Many of their target consumers, i.e., software company employees had expressed that 'if tender coconut is available in neat, 'easy to handle and ready to serve' form, they would prefer to go for the same. This gave them the much-needed confidence.

Health Magic Natural Foods was started in January 2005. Initial capital : 800,000 Rupees. The trimming machines peel out the outer green skin. With this, the tender coconut becomes more attractive and easy to handle. Bottom portion of the nut is cut in such a way as to facilitate the nut to self-stand on tables. Then it is dipped in a solution of potassium metabisulfite and citric acid. This retains the original colour. After drying, the nut is wrapped with food-grade cling film to enhance the shelf life.

In a way, you may even call all these minimum processing measures as beauty addition too! Forget about the foreign and inland tourists, a look at Tender Fresh would attract even the farmers who grow it. Everyday, Health Magic door - delivers its beauty-added tender coconuts at the software companies. At Bangalore, Hopcoms sells it at their selected outlets. Hopcoms is a co-operative giant running a chain of horticultural produce shops throughout the state. However, a breakthrough was when the leading software company Accenture gave consent to Health Magic to open a retail parlor at their premises. An initial daily sale of 150 nuts here has now risen to an overwhelming 250-300.

Analyses Yogesha, "consumers in coconut growing area know the natural taste of tender coconut. As such, the preserved tender coconut water doesn't attract them so much. In our 'minimum processing', we don't heat the tender coconut water, nor do we add any additives. Our main thrust here is to think always as to how conveniently and easily we can provide tender coconut water to consumers without altering its natural taste."

While the roadside tender coconuts are priced Rs.10 in Bangalore, Tender Fresh is priced only at Rs 12 at consumer's door. Health Magic lifts its supply of fresh coconuts directly from farmers of Channapatna area. They have arrangement with about 100 growers who are given training by the firm about selection and harvesting of right kind of tender coconuts. Every week, the Health Magic's factory at Kengeri gests 2-3 loads of fresh tender coconuts. In monsoon, the sales go down by 25%.

Software companies don't permit the tender coconuts to be cut inside their premises. Most of the clientele buy Tender Fresh for its water. As such, the firm keeps only the sweet water in mind in its selection criteria for raw tender coconuts. Too big and too small sizes are also not preferred. One of the problems that come in the way of tender coconut marketing in city offices is the problem of disposal of the left-over. How does Health Magic tackle this?

Pic: Yajna Mangalore.

"It's not a big problem. We collect the solid waste and bring it back. Our vehicle, after delivering fresh nuts, picks up previous days left-over and brings it back to our factory. Poor people around happily take it home for future use as fuel," reveals Yogesha.

Clouds of suspicion on soft drinks has also helped boost up the market for Tender Fresh. "However, to cash on that aspect, you need intensive marketing efforts. Right now, our production and resources are limited. But the potential is vast. We can develop good market in restaurants, star hotels, super markets, trade fairs, conferences, seminars, ceremonies etc," he hopes.

However, they have plans to bring out a family pack shortly. There will be packs containing two or four nuts that families can easily carry even on two-wheelers. They can take home the pre-cooled pack, keep it in their fridge and drink it whenever they like, just like the bottled drinks.

"Occasionally we get feedback from our consumers. Many software employees express that they are very happy now. Earlier, they had to come out of their offices and walk down in the streets in search of tender coconuts on the footpath. There are a few who say that they have bid good-bye to coffee or tea and have opted for our product. Health consciousness is increasing."

In fact, this pioneering industry has tremendous potential to scale up in our own country. Years ago, when coconut prices had fallen, Coconut Development Board took lot of initiative to start tender coconut parlors in and outside Kerala. Some of them were serving a health drink by name coconut lassi is nothing but the tender coconut water blended with its own white meat with the help of a mixie. Coconut lassi, sold at Rs 5 had good takers. The same product, if served in a more attractive and convenient form would have developed an altogether new market segment. Unfortunately, till now, nobody seems to have taken this product to the urban elite in a trend-setting way.

"Tender coconut is a noble gift of nature; it has to reach the noble clientele in the country," wishes Yogesha, "We would like to sell Tender Fresh like milk sold in milk booths." He has plans to start more retail parlors in software company's premises. In addition, plans are there to begin retail outlets at railway junctions, bus terminals, big hospitals, shopping complexes, marketing places, government office complexes, private offices etc. One more idea of diversification is to open 'Coco bazaars' that sell fresh and tender coconuts, packed coconut milk, chips and all coconut products at one place.

Adds Yogesha: "Ideas are abundant. But what limits us are the financial resources. Moreover, our technologies have to be fine-tuned. If Coconut Board sends us on a study tour to Thailand and other countries that are far ahead of us in coconut value-addition, that will help us greatly."

Coconut Development Board, he mentions, has helped him great deal in this venture. Under the Coconut Technology Mission, CDB has given them financial aid for marketing efforts. Similarly, he acknowledges the co-operation of many officers of horticultural department, professors of UAS Bangalore, Hopcoms top-brass and managements of software companies.

Looking back, Yogesh is happy. "We are satisfied because we could make headway and success in the field we have been educated and to find out an altogether new market for a product my and many other neighbourhood families are growing."

India is the world's number three producer (22%) of coconuts. It lags slightly behind Indonesia (27%) and Philippines (23%). Thailand, with its negligible 3% production, has captured the number one position in value-adding tender coconuts in various forms. It exports differently beauty-added & value added tender coconuts to many developed countries like Japan, UK, USA, etc. Two thirds of its 1.119 million coconuts are either consumed fresh or value added and marketed inland or exported. There are some Thai exporters who trade in various coconut products including tender coconuts for which some of the companies claim 3 to 4 months shelf-life under refrigeration. Tourists are attracted to different deserts & coconut preparations. Websites describe the high nutrient value of tender coconut water and have step by step photos and descriptions showing how to open and eat a tender coconut. Of course they call our tender coconut as 'young coconut.'

The time is right for CDB to study the Thai achievement in coconut value addition and try to promote the same here in our country. Sources at Coconut Development Board express helplessness saying that Thailand's industries and horticulture departments are very secretive about their coconut value-addition techniques. It must still be possible to make progress, because, after all, most of the techniques involved are not very elaborate or complex. In many cases, just beautiful presentation is what sells ordinary products.

With health consciousness growing among consumers and state governments inclined to act over pesticide residues in bottled drinks, the timing may be perfect to promote our best available natural drink, tender coconut, inside our own country as well as to the oversees consumers. With the changing lifestyle of the urban middle class and more and more 'ready to use' eatable and drinks turning into the 'in thing', tender coconut will also like have an increasing number of takers if it can be provided in comfortable form.