A positive change beyond just caring.
Updated: Mar 6
Shannon French first went to Timor in 2000 as an Australian Infantry soldier to help restore peace to East Timor. Deep down he always wanted to return to make positive change beyond just caring. In 2018, after seeing Dr Dan Etherington on TV explaining his DME technology of extracting virgin coconut oil, and its potential sustainable benefits to rural communities in the Pacific, Shannon and a fellow veteran Steve Dean returned to Timor and travelled the country extensively looking for coconuts.
They discovered ancient forests with unbelievably good-tasting coconuts that were not being harvested. They were just falling to the ground to rot. Shannon and Steve met an ambitious and highly driven local land-owner Cheno Cabral in Souro near Lospalos, the eastern part of Timor Leste, who was keen to help get this project off the ground.
There is a lot of poverty in Souro due to the lack of income and it is a seven-hour motorbike commute over the most potholed, dusty and dangerous roads you could imagine. It is fatiguing dodging the crazy, colourful and noisy buses and once you finally make it to Souro you are in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by lush mountains full of wild growing organic coconut trees. There are no fertilisers or pesticides in Timor and so all Timor’s produce is organic by default.
With no experience, their first task was to figure out how to build a factory. They had to teach themselves to make virgin coconut oil (VCO) using the DME press system, and then train up seven women employees, who had never before worked to earn an income.
When it became known that they were buying coconuts in the district, Timorese folk appeared from everywhere with coconuts to sell. They arrived loaded on horseback and in wheelbarrows. To witness this buzz of excitement was truly amazing. Often the whole village would come to watch them make VCO. At times this was quite surreal and daunting.
There were many challenges and for a long time it felt like they were going nowhere. Each time they left Timor it was not long before issues arose like parts not functioning, which stopped production. There was a problem with the chimney in that it blew smoke across large batches of VCO making it below standard for export. Because of limited access to Souro it could take many days for tools and parts to arrive especially when trekking through mud in the monsoon rains. The challenges and problems just kept mounting and at times Shannon and Steve wanted to give up, but because of their former military training and stubborn nature, they pushed through.
Eventually the village community took over ownership and running of the new DME factory. “It’s now with great pride that we witness the huge impact it is having on changing lives and transforming the community, not only financially but with better health, access to nutritious food, and schooling for those who previously couldn't afford it. The people of Souro are very proud of their coconut oil factory and the women are absolutely nailing it. In spite of challenges brought about in 2020 with the Covid pandemic where there are pending contracts still not finalised, Lospalos Virgin Coconut Oil is selling domestically in Timor and exported to Australia.”
“Kokonut Pacific’s DME technology is a fantastic perfect system and model for small scale rural operations that creates a superior coconut oil.
"Toward the end of 2020 we expanded the factory to include five dryers, and additional presses increasing production four times," Shannon explains. "We are now employing more than 40 women and purchasing coconuts from many more districts. From helping 30 families at the beginning of 2020, we are now helping over 100 families in just 12 months. We are also in the process of getting organic certification.
"There’s nothing greater than to see the people of Souro enjoying, for the first time, economic freedom and hope for their future generations."
"For us, our ongoing challenge is securing more customers to whom we can export Lospalos Virgin Coconut Oil. They would be customers we can work and grow with as this new market opportunity develops in our nearest neighbour and world’s youngest nation, Timor Leste,” says Shannon French.