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Winter 2009

One on One with Perla Manapol

perla_manapol.jpgPerla Manapol, Ed.M.'73, thinks about coconuts all the time. She even started a blog about them called Coconuts Galore with the motto: Always use your coconut. The goal is to get people to understand the value in coconut husks (bunots), which are routinely thrown away as waste but could be turned into environmentally friendly products that provide lasting employment for families in rural areas. Manapol's education campaign started first in the Philippines, her homeland, which, after Indonesia, is the world's second-largest producer of coconuts. Through the nongovernmental organization (NGO) that she created, she started meeting with local farmers and coconut cooperatives, writing letters to legislators, and reaching out to people in other economically depressed coconut-rich countries, particularly cash-strapped Liberia. In person and through her blog, www.coconutsgalore.blogspot.com, this former foreign-service officer provides education and skills training in the hope that the undervalued and underused coconut husk will, one day, reach its full potential.

What made you decide to start your NGO, Sustainable Rural Enterprise?

There was a need to organize the small coconut farmers and their families to help them earn more from the coconut.

How do you do this?

The radio plays a very important role in organizing farmers, particularly in rural areas, as do numerous agricultural extension workers who carry out education-information communication activities. In our case, the farmers were already organized into a cooperative, albeit with a dwindling membership and a reputation for noncohesiveness. I am proud to say that our project increased membership, now [with a] majority women.

Are farmers generally receptive to your ideas or do they say, "We already grow and sell the coconuts. Why would we want to take on more?"

Coconut farmers in the Philippines are among the poorest in the country, primarily because of their dependence on one product, coconut oil, making them vulnerable to price fluctuations. We had no problem in introducing the concept of diversifying the product line. Everyone readily welcomed it as a virtual godsend.

No resistors?

Of course there were naysayers, all of them male, who scoffed at rope making and weaving as "work for sissies." But when our women workers started earning money regularly, these detractors quickly joined in.

Why focus on the coconut husk?

There were tons of wasted coconut husks that were left to rot or were burned. We knew that these could be processed into high-value products that would address both environmental and livelihood-generation concerns.

What kind of products?

A coconut husk is 35 percent fiber and 65 percent dust, or peat; both are commonly known as coir. The fiber is made into mats for soil erosion control (coconets) and household items such as doormats and curtains. The peat has higher value than the fiber and is an excellent material for organic fertilizer, filtration, and commercial fiberboard. Many countries in Europe have banned the use of the non-ecofriendly peat moss in favor of the cocopeat.

Mats for soil erosion control?

Coconets are an environmentally friendly and less costly alternative to traditional synthetic and concrete-with-metal soil stabilizers; they biodegrade at a faster pace and have excellent water absorption capability. Demand for coconets worldwide is increasing -- a welcome development, especially as the most common processing method of rope making and net weaving is labor intensive, thus creating jobs for thousands of poor coconut farmers and their families.

Is there a big need for coconets in the Philippines?

Yes. The Philippines suffers from frequent landslides, deforestation, and soil degradation, not just from natural disasters, but also from increased mining activities.

So you were able to find a local solution to a local problem.

Yes, but domestic usage of the coconet is woefully insufficient. It is common talk among industry players that coconets are too cheap and therefore commissions are smaller. China is now the biggest user of coconets.

But on your blog, you note that there is a presidential mandate to use coconets in all government infrastructure projects.

Sadly, there is more usage of the product outside the Philippines, even at a lower buying price. Domestic prices are higher, but it takes forever for the government to pay the contractors and suppliers. In addition, public works are rife with corruption, a condition that small enterprises like ours are simply unable to contend with.

You have started to look at how the husk can be used in Liberia, which has a women's issues-focused president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. Has this helped you make inroads?

The women of Liberia are amazing: strong, resilient, and impervious to physical discomfort. It is only fitting that a woman also leads the country. Indeed, in March 2009, Liberia and President Johnson Sirleaf will host the International Women's Colloquium where, among other features, we hope to have a booth showcasing coconut-based products made by the women of Liberia with the assistance of the women of the Philippines. Imagine, this "Kokonut Lady of Liberia" shaking hands with the "Lioness of Liberia," then realizing that both share a common Harvard background.

Has your blog helped to educate people?

It's been very useful. I have received so many messages from people all over the world, most of whom simply Google the word "coconut." A number of these contacts have resulted in expanding our mission in other coconut-producing countries.

What do you like about writing a blog?

Reading my own blog is a revelation of sorts, almost always eliciting amazement over the realization that I have changed so much over the years and how much I enjoy every minute of my new life.

With the work you've been doing, what are you most proud of?

I have a niece who joined the Peace Corps and is now working for a nonprofit, citing Auntie Perla's work as her inspiration. My granddaughter joined a church group that builds orphanages in Mexico. My tweener grandson donated his weekly allowance to help build a playground in Grandma's village, while my toddler grandson's outgrown shoes, clothes, and toys are donated to the village children. I'd say I'm one heckuva proud grandma.

What kind of reaction do you get from people about your project's motto, Always use your coconut?

"Huh?" followed by laughter. Or, as my kith and kin tease me, "You went to Harvard and here you are peddling bunot for a living?" My response: "I work pro bono for my NGO. That actually means pro bonehead!"