Reviving the art of ‘kamaimai’
The rich aroma of freshly cooked kamaimai, or coconut nectar, permeates through Takaniko and Nau Ruabete’s home in Buakonikai Village on Rabi Island.
It’s a daily activity for the couple as they ready bottles of kamaimai made by extracting the sap of coconut blossoms, known as toddy tapping, which is then boiled to create a sweet syrup.
In Rabi, north of Fiji, toddy tapping is a traditional practice for Banabans, also known as the people of Banaba or Ocean Island. Banabans settled on Rabi Island in 1945 as a result of the displacement caused by phosphate mining on Banaba.
Many decades later, toddy tapping continues to serve Banaban families like the Ruabetes who generate income from selling coconut nectar and other coconut derived products.
A decline in toddy tapping
Takaniko, 64, says the tradition has gradually declined over the years with many Banabans leaving the island for better education and employment. Other factors contributing to the decline in toddy tapping on Rabi include economic, infrastructural and environmental.
“I began tapping toddy when I was just 10 years old,” he said.
Takaniko left Rabi after completing secondary school to work for the Ministry of Agriculture’s Koronivia Research Station and later the Pacific Community (SPC).
“When I was young, every household in Rabi possessed the knowledge of producing the syrup. However, that knowledge has gradually faded away in recent years. I believe that as the practice of kamaimai production declined, so did the variety of coconuts suitable for toddy production on the island.”
Now retired, Takaniko has returned to the island with a mission to encourage Banaban youth to take up toddy tapping.
“That’s why, upon my return to the island, I made it my mission to also reintroduce the best coconut varieties for production,” he said.
Preserving traditional knowledge
Coconut nectar has a low glycaemic index and is often used by Banaban families as ordinary sugar. Most coconut suppliers on the island have now found a steady market to supply kamaimai to Marama Niu, a Suva-based company that uses the nectar, as a healthier substitute for sugar, to make vegan coconut-based ice cream.
The Australia and New Zealand supported Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access Plus (PHAMA Plus) Program began working with Marama Niu earlier this year to support coconut nectar suppliers on Rabi boost their production. This has allowed the traditional activity of toddy tapping to continue on the island on a commercial scale.
Toddy cutting is traditionally a role for Banaban men while the women cook the fresh nectar to make syrup.
“When I started, my father and uncles taught me how to cut toddy. They shared a secret with me: never cut toddy before the sun is up. The coconut sap has to be harvested between 5 am and 6 am when it is still cool,” Takaniko said.
“We are fortunate now to have markets for our products through initiatives like PHAMA Plus and Marama Niu. We not only have a market to sell kamaimai, but also other value-added coconut products.”
Marama Niu started sourcing kamaimai from Rabi at the height of COVID-19, after border restrictions limited access to its suppliers in Tuvalu.
A joint effort by the Pacific Island Farmers Organisation Network (PIFON), in partnership with SPC’s Pacific Organic and Ethical Trade Community (POETCom) program, provided technical and business support to Marama Niu connect to closer to home suppliers on Rabi.
Standardising kamaimai production
PHAMA Plus and Marama Niu are now working to enhance the quality and standardisation of Marama Niu’s coconut nectar products for domestic and overseas markets. This provides sustainable income opportunities for Banaban women in Rabi who supply coconut nectar and also virgin coconut oil to Marama Niu through the Banaban Virgin Coconut Oil Facility.
The Facility sources coconut nectar and VCO from suppliers across the island and sells it to Marama Niu. The company then bottles coconut nectar and processes VCO other soap and virgin coconut oil products to be sold in local supermarkets, retail outlets and airport terminals.
“We’ve built a strong business relationship with Marama Niu where our women are supplying virgin coconut oil and now coconut nectar. It is a source of pride for us Banaban people to see our products out in local and overseas markets through Marama Niu,” Banaban Virgin Coconut Oil Facility Manager Operation Terikano Takesau said.
PHAMA Plus supported Marama Niu’s recent visit to the island scope and assess potential kamaimai suppliers and provide food safety and standards training. The training helps enhance production processes by coconut nectar suppliers to meet industry standards.
“Initially we did not have enough coconut nectar to retail them to sell them separately. And now with our work with communities on Rabi we’ve been able to visit them and talk about the difficulties they face with making a product like this. As our business grows, we’re able to encourage more suppliers to come on board,” Marama Niu co-founder Kylie Daunoco says.
Combining the traditional knowledge of producing kamaimai with the expertise in food safety and standards by PHAMA Plus, Banaban coconut farming households like the Ruabetes can now supply quality nectar to local and potential overseas markets through Marama Niu.
For more information, please contact PHAMA Plus Country Manager – Fiji, Navitalai Tuivuniwai at firstname.lastname@example.org