If you crack open the shell of a coconut, its DNA will reveal traces of its partial lineage to the Philippines. It’s no wonder then that Filipinos, among other coconut producers, are hardwired to harness every scrap of it, from sky-high leaves down to the roots.
The ongoing coconut craze has spawned health gurus proclaiming the wonders and miraculous benefits of the versatile fruit, but no one knows them better than a coconut farmer. Anne Josef, a young Filipino-Canadian entrepreneur knows this for a fact. In late 2011, she launched CocoVie Naturals, a line of fair trade, coconut-based organic products sourced from the Philippines.
The modest and sprightly Josef does not hesitate to credit the Filipino farmers who continue to help her develop a growing array of coconut products. “The farmers are involved in every step of the creation process,” Josef explains. “I see them as partners, all the way from harvest to sale.”
Josef works with farmers in the Philippines and a test cook in Toronto to adapt time-honoured Filipino recipes to suit North American taste buds and its compulsion to try the latest organic craze.
Among the end products is a healthier, higher-end organic coconut jam, inventively infused with the tropical flavours of guava, pineapple, and mango. Subtler in their sweetness than the traditional store bought variety, CocoVie jams are a spoonful of velvety goodness.
Before seeking out the knowledge of coconut farmers, Josef was fixated on finding a way to import coconut water in its purest form possible – without all the preservatives – to Toronto.
As a little girl, living in the Philippines, she recalls how coconut was used in everyday life and recognized for its healing properties. Coconut water was used to treat urinary tract infection and coconnut oil, for eczema. It was a memory that stayed with Josef even after she moved with her family to Montreal, when she was nine.
But by the time she embarked on serious research into the coconut market, the market
was already saturated with coconut water. A side trip to a coconut farm, while visiting the Philippines to attend a wedding, proved to be Josef’s salvation. It exposed her to the many other wonders of coconut – how it could be used to make flour, sugar, vinegar, jam, soap and more. The farmers showed her how to develop coconut vinegar, derived from the sap of coconut tree. If aged right and with further processing, she explains, the vinegar can be fermented to make wine. Similar to apple cider vinegar, it can be used to marinate dishes, make a salad dressing or dipping sauce.
With a business degree from Montreal’s Concordia University, three years of extensive research into the properties of coconut, and an instant connection forged with farmers, Josef felt ready to set up shop.
The venture has not been without risks, snags and sacrifices. To fund her enterprise, she sold her condo and still maintains side gigs tutoring kids in French and teaching Zumba, Hip-Hop and Yoga at community centres and corporate quarters.
A business loan or grant from the government could have helped relieve some pressure, but her energy was focused on getting to the market before the shelves became too crowded.
Though her relationships with the farmers play a decisive role in her success, she admits there were some hiccups along the way. “The culture of doing business is very different [in rural Philippines],” she explains. “They can be very laid back. I had to understand that the pace of life is different. But you just have to give them enough time so that you don’t miss out.”
She started with just a small order of products, exhibiting at health and wellness shows and community events, and within two days, they were sold out. A slight delay in restocking her products kept her from meeting the immediate demand. Luckily, the markets were willing to wait for her.
The first store to sign up was Ambrosia Natural Foods, a health food shop in Thornhill, Ont., followed by The Big Carrot, at the Danforth, a beloved cooperative institution in Toronto known for its wide selection of high-quality organic produce and goods. Today, CocoVie products are sold in about 90 health food stores, spas, yoga studios and supermarkets in Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec. In Toronto, they can be found on the shelves of the largest health food store chain, Noah’s, and in specialty food shoppes like Pusateri’s and McEwan.
Not one to rest on her laurels and aware of the growing appetite for all things coconut, Josef continues to experiment on various concoctions. Last month, she released CocoVie coconut marbles, power snacks made with raw coconut ingredients for people on the go. Next year, she plans to unveil a beauty line of coconut hair and skin products.
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