With the growing popularity of coconut oil-based health and cosmetics products in Japan, sales are strong at Cocowell Corp., which imports a traditionally made version of the oil from the Philippines.
To support communities in the world’s largest coconut oil producing country, the Osaka-based company uses part of its revenue to donate seedlings and fertilizer to Filipino villages.
Cocowell President Yu Mizui, 39, went to a university in the Philippines in 2002 to study about environmental issues in developing countries.
While there, he was shocked by the sight of young children scavenging through mountains of garbage. That was when Mizui realized that poverty must be tackled before discussing environmental problems. He set up Cocowell in 2004.
“Generating a product that can only be produced locally would help increase the farmers’ income,” Mizui said, recalling the genesis of his idea.
There are numerous coconut farms in Filipino villages, but the farmers’ income was minimal because the fruit was sold as raw ingredients to major corporations overseas. That gave Mizui the idea of adding value to the product by keeping processing within the Philippines.
The method Cocowell chose was the traditional way local residents produce coconut oil — by fermenting raw coconut juice at room temperature for two to three days before separating the water, milk and oil content. Compared with the method commonly used at large plants and other producers, which involves the use of centrifuges or pressing oil from dried coconut flesh, the traditional way better preserves both taste and nutritional value.
After many visits to the Philippine Coconut Authority for negotiations, Cocowell began selling its food and cosmetics products in 2005 in cooperation with local farmers.
Business was slow at first, but Cocowell’s sales shot up to ¥200 million in 2014 — up from a mere ¥30 million the previous year — and are projected to hit ¥1 billion ($8.3 million) this year.
In addition to online sales, the company broadened its distribution network by selling to major supermarkets and department stores.
Aside from coconut oil, Cocowell offers cosmetics, soap and accessories made from coconut trees. It has four contracted factories in the Philippines, and Mizui visits the country at least once every two months.
“I don’t want this to be just a temporary boom,” he said. “I want to make coconut oil a part of the Japanese people’s lifestyle and also contribute to the development of villages in the Philippines.”