Will Lauder’s Kapuluan Coconut is Proudly Pinoy
The coconut is currently celebrating its heyday these days, and while raw and virgin coconut oil are easy to find in the coconut-rich tropics, the rest of the Western world doesn’t enjoy this luxury. Enter Kapuluan Coconut.
Kapuluan (“islands”, in Filipino) Coconut’s founder, Will Lauder, was scheduled to fly from Canada to the Philippines to surf the breaks of Siargao when news channels around the world started broadcasting the news of Haiyan’s imminent arrival.
Instead of cancelling his trip, he decided to fly in and help out.
“It was the worst storm in modern history. I decided to ditch my surfboard and bring water filters. I’d never done any disaster relief, nor was I affiliated with any NGOs, but I really felt this calling to help. I was on my way to the Philippines anyway. I felt it would be rather selfish of me to go to Siargao and have fun while so many people were suffering.
“Soon, I arrived in the Philippines with a duffel bag filled with water filters and spent a few days in Manila trying to organize what I was going to do. Finally I was introduced to this fellow who said, “Okay, go in a plane and go to Tacloban, and then get in a van and go to General MacArthur.” I actually ended up in Borongan, spending my first night sleeping in a van.
The guy who was driving was nice enough to tell me “Okay, you can stay here, I’ll take care of you. My security guard’s right here; I’ll drive you back to General MacArthur in the morning.” He took me and got some food and a few beers to help me sleep.”
“That was my first experience dealing with Filipino hospitality and generosity, that warm-heartedness you see everywhere. I spent the next few weeks in Eastern Samar and Tacloban, delivering clean water and relief goods.
It was just an extension of that first night, of how everybody had lost and suffered so much and yet they were so welcoming and giving and just resilient, strong, and smiling. All these positive characteristics, like sharing the last bottle of Red Horse with me over dinner.”
“All these left a lasting impression as I hadn’t experienced anything like that before. I often say that I went there to help people, but in reality, the people helped me more than I helped them.
They gave me this new perspective on life, on what it means to be happy, and how to be thankful for what you have.” – Will Lauder, founder of Kapuluan Coconut
Lauder came up with the Kapuluan idea three months after Haiyan, in Bali.
“…reading books inspired me on how business could facilitate some sort of positive change. If you align business with a cause, that business can actually facilitate that change and do good. It all came together and I decided that the people I’d met and spent time with in Eastern Samar had lost so many coconut trees. These were people were already impoverished and they had lost homes, family members, and their livelihood—the trees—and I thought, “How are they ever going to recover?””
“And so, on the spot, I decided I would start Kapuluan.
I knew coconut oil was a product in high demand. A friend from the Philippines had actually given me a bottle of it before I left, and I started using it on my skin, my hair; basically using it for everything.
That’s how Kapuluan was conceptualized, and another reason why we went towards personal care: we market it for beauty, hair care, and that type of thing (rather than food use) because I believe in what coconut oil can do, and I personally love it.”
Kapuluan Coconut’s vision is to plant a coconut tree for every bottle of raw coconut oil sold.
As the tropical storms that ravage Eastern Visayas get stronger and stronger, more fallen coconut trees are left in their path. This is a problem for the local copra farmers who already struggle to make ends meet.
Kapuluan was launched at the end of 2015 and was off to a rocky start, with no thanks to a failed crowd-funding campaign. Lauder mentions the main feedback that they received after the campaign: people thought they didn’t need the money to launch the company, because the brand already looked so good and so polished, which is evident in their packaging and branding.
Despite a few hiccups, as Kapuluan approaches the middle of its second year, they are now close to hitting their quota, and are currently waiting to hit the ten thousand tree-mark to start tree planting in Eastern Samar.
“The concept was One-for-One: for each item that we sell, we commit to plant a coconut palm tree. Along the way, I realized that it takes the coconut tree seven years to bear fruit. It’s crazy.
From my experience spending time with copra farmers and their communities in Leyte and Samar who live in extreme poverty, they are worried about what they’ll feed their families.
They’re not going to plant trees unless they’re incentivized to do so. There’s that problem, and there’s also the immediate need for assistance, to help support their livelihood.
So while the tree-planting campaign is still in effect, as it’s a fantastic initiative for long-term sustainability, I started realizing that we needed to work with the farmers to help and empower them to achieve a higher value for the coconut as their resource.”
Copra is the controversial source of RBD (refined, bleached, deodorized) coconut oil, and it is processed in such a way that the resulting oil is actually just as cheap and as harmful for consumers as its competitors in the market (like palm oil and other genetically modified oils).
Heat treatment essentially alters the chemical composition of coconut oil for the worse, which makes copra oil harmful for both consumers, the environment, and for the exploited farmers who receive a very low value for the goods that they produce.
Seeing as these farmers harvest and sell copra to their disadvantage, Lauder eventually made connections with the inventor of the DME (Direct Micro Expelling) process, Dr. Dan Etherington, to supply the specific handmade technology used to make raw coconut oil, which Lauder says can be easily implemented in small communities in Eastern Visayas, without affecting their culture.
Kapuluan Coconut is currently raising money and stockpiling cash flow in order to provide coconut farmers with funds, skills training, facilities and technology, and to provide an export market and demand for higher value raw coconut oil.
Having provided financial assistance to a farming coop in Eastern Samar, Kapuluan plans to achieve full-scale production of their own raw coconut oil in the future to further support the livelihood of the farmers in Eastern Samar.
In addition to financial support, demand for raw coconut oil has risen thanks to increased awareness of the copra farmer’s plight, as shown in Kinabuhi, a documentary produced by Lauder himself.
“Another problem is awareness. A lot of people think of coconuts, coconut water, coconut oil and are reminded of a beautiful, sort of utopic dream-like scene with tree-lined beaches.
But most people don’t know the troubled history of coconut oil and that it comes from a farmer from all the way in the Philippines. That’s not how its like for coffee and tea and other commodities that have a lot of awareness for fair-trade and standards, and for concern about how the farmers live.
That’s our primary challenge, because we didn’t want to be just another coconut oil company that sources just any other oil and just repackages everything and markets it as this sexy product.
We wanted to be able to tell the story of the farmers, and why they need help. It’s very challenging to do, and costs a lot of money because you have to tell so many people so many times, for that to resonate with them. We did do fairly well with our documentary film Kinabuhi, a lot of people have seen that film and have contacted us, with this emotional, visceral response about how it affected them, and how they were inspired or able to understand.
It’s going to be a long fight to raise awareness market for the coconut farmers and to educate the market but its something we’re committed to. Hopefully we’ll make an impact, but over time I hope that we’ll inspire consumers to want better standards for coconut farmers, and that other coconut companies have to follow suit and make sure that they respect the farmers as part of their supply chain.”
In a story full of ironies and fateful coincidence, all it takes is a man from a farming province in Canada to run headlong into two tropical cyclones (yes, two!) to come up with an idea that might just help this kapuluan’s richest resource and their unappreciated farmers get the recognition they so deserve.