Coconuts. Even if you’re not a fan of piña coladas, one of its main ingredients is making its way into many aspects of our lives—lattes, dairy-free ice cream, even leggings and toothpaste. But in some coastal regions of Colombia, this hard stony drupe is making it into the lives of thousands in a much more meaningful way.

People all over the world enjoy coconut, but in northwestern Colombia, coconut is proving useful in ways that go beyond providing healthy fats and healing dry skin.

In some small communities, local coconut production is rehabilitating traditional food knowledge, supporting the environment, and providing community resilience.

The World is Going Nuts for Coconuts

In 2018, the global coconut products market was valued at $11.5 billion. By 2026, that’s expected to nearly triple and reach $31.1 billion.

It’s healthy, it’s versatile, and it has a range of uses in anything from food and beverages, to cosmetics, to mattresses.

Unfortunately, we’re not yet seeing the type of growth required to keep up with demand. Nearly three-quarters of coconuts are produced on small family farms in Indonesia, the Philippines, and India. Yet in these areas, the growth of coconut is only about 1.3% each year—far less than the 10% annual increase in demand reported in the industry.


Countries by coconut production 

With some of the highest coconut-producing areas unable to keep up with demand, new regions—like in northern South America—are stepping in to pick up the slack.

And for good reason. A recent genotyping study indicates that this area’s coconuts have more genetic diversity, which may prove useful in tolerating the red-ring and lethal yellowing diseases that have become problematic in some other coconut-producing areas.

This is certainly an exciting development in the world of coconut, but perhaps even more exciting is what’s already happening for the communities growing them.

Coconut: A Colombian Staple

Arroz con Coco is a coconut rice dish that’s a staple in Colombia, especially along its Caribbean coast. While rice is a universally-loved side dish, Arroz con Coco is a manifestation of where African, Indigenous, and Spanish influences meet in the tropical area of coastal Colombia.

Now, Arroz con Coco is dishing up more than just a sweet or savory rice side dish.

In the northern Colombian region, the coastal provinces of Chocó and Coqui, conditions are ripe for rice and coconut growth. Furthermore, Chocó is one of the areas with the greatest coconut genome diversity.

Coconut genetic groups formed in Northern South America using Minimum Spanning Networks (MSN) and Discriminant Principal Component Analysis (DPCA).


Map of genetic diversity for coconut in Colombia

However, with conflicting pressures from modernization and the coca trade, the communities are losing people and the potential to sustainably profit from these food staples.

That is, until the Zotea project sat down to the table. Now, they’re serving Arroz con Coco to community members and tourists, and thanks to support from the nonprofit FunLeo, they’re rehabilitating food knowledge from black and indigenous community members.


Arroz con coco is a staple on the Colombian coast

Every bite is transforming this area of the globe in a variety of other ways, too:

  • In spite of being an area perfect for small scale farming and fishing, lack of infrastructure and the physical location of the area are contributing to food insecurity. The growth of rice and coconut and sales of dishes at the Zotea restaurant are reducing hunger in the community.
  • The restaurant was constructed with sustainable materials and provided an unexpected benefit as becoming a community hub, which is necessary in a community plagued by many of its young people leaving for the cities.
  • Since their opening in 2018, Zotea has also become home to a dehydrator and press, which means that the community can create value-added products like desiccated coconut, coconut oil, and rice—providing them with sustainable income when the products are distributed to eco-tourists or Colombian delis.
  • Using organic practices to grow rice and coconut has brought back knowledge of chaga farming systems, where all farming is done in accordance with the natural environment.

What Coconut Means for Communities

It’s clear that the world is hungry for more coconut. It’s also clear that the growth potential for this cultivated palm in countries like Colombia is significant. Colombia is still importing 20% to meet its domestic coconut demand—which unfortunately means smuggled coconut and poor sanitary conditions.

Fortunately when it’s grown, consumed, and respected in ways like it is in coastal Colombia, this fruit brings about tremendous opportunity. Around the globe it’s been associated with women’s empowerment in Indonesia, providing regular income to farming families in Samoa, and aiding depleted soils in Nigeria.

Coconut is more than just a global food craze. It’s a means of providing long-term wealth and social stability to vulnerable communities in areas like Colombia’s coast. The so-called ‘tree of life’ is changing lives all over the world, and will continue to do so long into the future.

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