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  • Ian Gray

First woman to own and operate a DME Unit

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

In a population of over 177,000 women, Hellen is the first and only woman to own and operate her own DME Unit.

Hellen Saera Hilli (nee Ghemu), a widow with six children and now 16 grandchildren, lives on Vangunu Island at the south end of Marovo Lagoon, the longest World Heritage listed saltwater lagoon in the world, situated in the New Georgia Islands (Western Province), Solomon Islands.

In 1997 with no training in business, only a conviction to help her people, Hellen, a qualified seamstress and curtain-maker, started a sewing school in the capital Honiara. Her goal was to help young girls who had dropped out of school, as well as to teach housewives so they could help support their families. This project was hugely successful and is now run by one of Hellen's daughters.

It was time for Hellen to venture into something new that could further assist her people, so she returned to her home village on Marovo Lagoon, where there is much need.

In 2016 Hellen had heard about DME and after researching and learning about the technology she was convinced that she could set up her own Unit. What motivated her was the belief that this would greatly help her people. Hellen would be buying the coconuts from the growers, of whom there are many, because for them producing and selling copra is dirty work that provides very little return.

There were several challenges. The first was how to raise the money to purchase the DME equipment and materials to build the shed and dryer to the exact specifications. Hellen did not have any working capital. Determined, she sought support from the Government. It took a year to receive assistance and this still was not enough. Undeterred, Hellen pressed on and in 2019 her DME Unit was completed.

When her oil was tested by Kokonut Pacific Solomon Islands (KPSI) it was found to be of excellent quality and in demand. With only a single press it is not feasible to employ more than six people. However, with one press Hellen can buy coconuts from 30 registered growers, helping them and their families. Most of these plantations had been abandoned for many years because of lack of industry for the coconut. But because Hellen is now buying their coconuts the growers are once again looking after their plantations.

Due to a few teething problems and the falling price of virgin coconut oil, Hellen is just covering the running costs of the DME Unit, and this makes it difficult to expand and grow, “…but I will find a solution sooner or later,” she says. With all the health benefits and uses of virgin coconut oil, in cooking, moisturising the skin, and helping with stomach ailments, Hellen will persevere. She is looking forward to adding soap-making to her project, as well as investigating other local markets.

You can read Hellen's full story on the Niulife Foundation website News

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