The Coconut Makes A Comeback

May 28, 2009

By Lane Murphy

How Dr. Walter Bradley is cracking down on poverty in developing countries.

His office and lab in the old Marrs McLean Science Building are without decorum. His name isn't even on the door: not really what I expected from a man whose work has been recently featured on MSNBC, the Discovery Channel and in MotorTrend magazine. The only items of note were a sheet of fibrous material, a small globe and a single coconut.

For 24 years, Dr. Walter Bradley helped improve consumer products for large U.S. companies. A mechanical engineer at Texas A&M University, companies like NASA, 3M, Dow Chemical and DuPont all benefited from his engineering expertise. But in 2002, Bradley came to Baylor with a notion to do something else.

"I decided for my last lap, so to speak, that I wanted to change my focus: I've got terrific experience and lots of training in doing materials research," says the bright-eyed Bradley. "What could I do that might help people in really poor parts of the world?


"My initial thought was, 'I have no clue.' I really had no idea of where God might lead and direct in this. I said, 'I am available. I am open. God, give me some ideas.'"

About that time, one of his former doctoral students, the first person ever from Papua New Guinea to earn a PhD in engineering, wanted to work on a sabbatical. Bradley told him to come up with an idea that would help people in poor countries, and then the professor would try to help find him some funding.

"He came back with a really interesting suggestion, that the dollar value of coconuts today is really terrible compared to what it was 15 years ago," which in turn, had largely ruined the lives of poor coconut farmers around the world, says Bradley. He says the coconut market bottomed out because of a campaign by some in the vegetable oil industry that convinced consumers that coconut oil is bad for people's health because of the saturated fat content. What was once in nearly every candy bar and the only oil used for popcorn now had a stigma attached to it.

"What did we replace it with? Hydrogenated vegetable oil, which we now know makes trans fats, which is horrible for you. It turns out that [coconut oil being bad for you] wasn't true, but it was an effectively propagated claim," says Bradley. Substituting vegetable oil for coconut oil was one of the worst pieces of health advice ever given, he notes.

The net result was that the demand for coconut oil dropped by 75 percent in one year, in 1992-93. Coconut oil almost disappeared from the U.S. market, and 11 million coconut farmers suffered.

Bradley says the typical coconut farmer owns about 5 acres and harvests 5,000 coconuts a year.

"They get about 10 cents apiece, and so they make $500 a year. They typically have six to eight children, and so they are extraordinarily poor. I thought, 'Please God, let there be something useful and interesting about coconuts.'"

Once Bradley uncovered the plight of the coconut farmer, he now had his unlikely muse; she was pithy, rotund and thick-whiskered: a tough nut to crack. Still, even if he discovered her mettle, Bradley realized it was entirely possible that the coconut would continue to be worth almost nothing.

"That's sort of how all this coconut business got started," he says.

"Our initial question was, 'What can we do to help these 11 million coconut farmers?' Our basic thesis was to find an abundant renewable resource that grows exclusively in poor parts of the world and is owned by the poor people in that country, and then figure out what we can do with it to make it worth something. Basically, that's our strategy. Let's take the coconut and go study its constituent parts."

Thus far, the large nut with the tough exterior has cooperated with Bradley. Her primary components of husk, pith, oil and shell all have properties with numerous possible applications to buoy the coconut market--and more importantly, the farmers.

The ongoing projects in Bradley's lab are varied. Among the technically successful, yet economically unfeasible options Bradley has attempted have been diaper fillers and alternative fuels. He says currently, coconut pith can absorb 10 times its weight in water, but man-made fillers absorb 50 times their weight. And pure coconut oil works very well in diesel engines, but Bradley estimates the price would exceed $12.00 per gallon.

Nevertheless, Bradley and his associates have been highly successful in finding broad applications for the coconut in order to keep demand for the farmer high. Among them are large-scale opportunities in the gardening, packaging and building materials industries.

The application getting the most press right now is crafting car parts from coconut fiber.

Bradley is teaming with Hobbs Bonded Fiber of Waco, an automotive industry parts supplier, to make all kinds of composite parts, including trunk liners and door panels. Bradley says 85 percent of each fibrous husk is usually discarded. Almost all of the husk is missing by the time it reaches grocery shelves.

"The fiber has all kinds of good properties--good ductility, good stiffness. And it turns out that you can take the fiber and blend it with polypropylene to make a matted material. And then you can hot press that and get a really nice composite," says Bradley, for a blend now 50 percent coconut fiber.

"People are looking for more green choices today, and if you replace all the polyester with coconut fiber, it's cheaper, it's greener, and it has better mechanical properties. So this is a great opportunity."

Bradley works closely with Dr. Steve Bradley, his son, who teaches social entrepreneurship in the Hankamer School of Business. Last fall, the younger Bradley's students researched sustainable coconut initiatives in six different countries in order to provide feasibility studies and business plans about how this would work in countries like Liberia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

"The students had a wonderful opportunity to explore the opportunities and to determine the difficulties in doing business, the import taxes for bringing in equipment, the local quantities and prices of coconuts, land costs, and really do a top to bottom look at how this would work in this particular country," says Bradley.

Bradley would love to be able to triple the income of the poor coconut farmers, and with some of the technologies that his team has been developing and patenting, that's a realistic goal.

"We don't want to own any supply. What we want to do is help poor people working through the Christian churches and missions in developing countries to be owners of coconut processing facilities, for which we then become a primary customer developing technology with patents, that allows us to maintain a significant price for the coconut, and pay farmers a far better price that what they would otherwise get.

"Our intention here is to do this as part of a kingdom-building ministry that ministers to people in a holistic way, spiritual and economic needs concurrently. We don't want to do one or the other, which often happens."

By focusing on what he can do instead of what he can't, Bradley is maximizing his time and effort. And by intentionally teaming with others who have their own areas of expertise, but share the same passion to help people, 11 million coconut farmers have a fighting chance.

"That's one of the reasons that I came to Baylor. Engineering is always an opportunity to improve quality of life. A lot of people think engineering is all about machinery, but machinery is not the end, it is the means."

It turns out, coconuts are far more useful than anyone thought they were cracked up to be. And because Dr. Bradley wanted to help them, farming families in some of the poorest parts of the world soon will have a means for a better life.

"So, in a nutshell, that's what we're doing with coconuts," he smiles.

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