Bringing Dignity through Coconuts


The transatlantic slave trade is a part of the Caribbean’s history and while you and I were not alive during this period, we are alive during the height of an aggressive and growing form of modern day slavery – human trafficking.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), approximately 40 million people are victims of human trafficking globally! While living and studying in Washington DC a few years ago, I was exposed to this incomprehensible evil and have for a long time wanted to be involved in the fight against it. My thoughts of how could I ‘do good’ in this space usually conjured up images of rescuing women from brothels in some country far away or advocating for stricter laws against perpetrators. While these efforts are absolutely necessary, I was always the firm believer that economics had to play a role in the prevention of human trafficking.

In September, I had the opportunity to attend a Business as Mission conference in Philadelphia where I met several advocates and business people involved in bringing light to the dark trafficking world. One such company is Dignity Coconuts based in the Philippines. On the margins of the conference, I was able to have a brief chat with the President, Erik Olson.

Erik came from a business background having started several small businesses while in college. After graduating, he felt like God was asking him to spend some time serving the poor which led him to Iraq where he worked among the Kurdish people who were living in extreme poverty and got the sense that he should use his business skills to help them. Six years ago, he caught the vision of Dignity Coconuts, (which was co-founded by his father in law Stephen Freed and Dr. Don Byker) and has been using his business skills since then to help people in extreme poverty.

Erik described the raison d’etre of the company which was founded in response to being heartbroken over the high levels of unemployment and poverty which fueled the sex trafficking industry. The founders recalled seeing vulnerable women and children being tricked by traffickers and quickly realized that the real issue behind this problem was a lack of jobs in the community. In an effort to create employment, the founder spoke to persons from the community to learn about the resources available that could be used for business. The resounding feedback from the community was that coconuts were all they had. At that time, most residents sold their coconuts for a low price to large mills that used the raw inputs to make refined coconut oil. Dignity Coconuts decided that they would take a different approach – to produce raw virgin coconut oil using organic coconuts. In fact, the company trained the community in organic farming which now meant that the farmers would be paid a premium price for their raw coconuts, translating into higher incomes for them.

Apart from job creation, Dignity Coconuts has taken a multipronged approach to addressing the prevention of sex trafficking which includes community development work where they have helped create access to clean water and provided life skills training to residents. The life skills training sessions are essential as it helps residents to think through practical implications of life decisions such as evaluating interest rates when taking loans – which can also lead to indebtedness.

Dignity Coconuts is driven by an underlying philosophy which believes that business can be a vehicle for change in addressing the unequal distribution of wealth. So guided by prayer, they selected one of the poorest rural communities in the Philippines with a high unemployment rate and poor quality drinking water. Over the years, the company has witnessed the effects of the business’ presence in the community.

One of the persons  impacted by the company is Emmanuel. Though well educated, Emmanuel could not find a job in his community which had an unemployment rate of 80%. As a result, he left his two daughters in his village to find work a long distance away in Manila, the capital. Even though he was working, his wages barely covered his rent and he was trapped in a cycle of poverty. When Dignity Coconuts set up operations in his community, Emmanuel like so many others was able to return and get a job. He was able as a single parent to now see his children every day, provide for them and give them an education. Over the years, Emmanuel has been able to put one of his daughters through college and the second one is currently in her freshman year. Before Dignity Coconuts, less than 1% of the community had the opportunity for a post high school education but now the tide is turning.

Apart from the economic benefits to the poor, Dignity Coconuts has also chosen to ‘do good’ to the earth. They have researched the properties of coconuts and found a way to grind the shell to make a renewable filler for stronger, lighter plastics. They also use the husk fibers to make erosion-control blankets where the peat plays an incredible conditioning role in giving new life to stale soil.

Erik believes that the poor simply need an opportunity to experience the dignity of work to take care of their needs. He knows that the people he serves already know how to fish; in fact they are eager to do so. They just lack the pond and that’s what Dignity Coconuts aims to be.

So if you want to help support the awesome work that Erik and his team are doing you can:

  • Buy the product and become a customer. A small change in your purchasing choice can make a big difference. Their products are in over 1200 stores in the U.S. and are also available on Amazon and on their website ;
  • Become brand ambassadors by sharing their story on social media (Facebook, IG, Twitter) and:
  • Consider becoming an investor so that they can help expand their production capacity

Dignity Coconuts

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