Our Traditional Wedding
In 1990, I took my husband Dennis back to my small island of Emirau for our traditional wedding and to introduce him to my family for the first time. Just 5km across and 150km of open ocean from the nearest island town, our rugged coral outcrop is the definition of isolation.
Once upon a time the islanders could make a good cash income from the sale of copra, the flesh of the coconut dried over smoky fires. Copra would be traded on to coastal vessels, crushed into crude coconut oil and eventually find its way to large factories in Europe.
As a child, I harvested coconuts with my parents on Emirau Island, and it paid for an austere but comfortable and idyllic life, and more importantly it paid for my brothers, sisters and I to be sent away to high school in the main New Guinea Islands centre of Rabaul.
Change in Demand
On the other side of the world farmers turned to new crops such as soy, sunflower, safflower and cotton. Production of these oils outstripping demand caused the demand for coconut oil to fall away. Prices fell for copra, the small coastal vessels stopped coming to Emirau island and people returned to what they had done for centuries; subsistance gardening and fishing.
Coconut Oil - A tradition
And yet the ever resiliant Islanders continued to use just a few of the nuts from their overgrown groves for home use, cooking and to extract the oil for cooking, for their skin and hair and to light their homes in hurricane lamps. Not brown, pungent and smoky like crude copra oil, this oil is clear as water, with the faint sweet scent of coconut ice. The term virgin coconut oil might be new but the product has been around, in just a few of the right places, for ever!
By the mid 80's I was pursuing nursing studies which took me to Sydney, where I spent several years and the experience was such a contrast from my childhood at Emirau. It was also the start of many flights, one of which I met Dennis Hill.
Dennis had just commenced a management position with Lae Tablebirds, after several years of volunteer work in Popendetta teaching villagers chicken breeding and care.
Kar Kar Island
In 1990, we moved to Kar Kar Island together, Dennis managed the coffee, cocoa and copra plantation whilst I was busy with our two new daughters, Launitingina (Launi) and Erica. During our time at Kar Kar we experimented with handmade coconut oil for home use which developed into a small local operation.
Starting the Business
Dennis, an Agricultural Scientist was fascinated by the concept of small-scale oil production and it intrigued him as to whether it could be commercially viable and maybe hold the key to making the coconut crop profitable once more for village farmers around the coastal areas of Papua New Guinea.
Four years later in 1994, we took the plunge, investing our savings to establish Tropic Frond Oils Limited with the vision to develop opportunities for the processing of coconuts into finished products. A small shed was leased in the beautiful harbour-side town of Rabaul.
Adopting the theme of making a centuries old tradition relevant to the 21st century a cosmetic brand 'Curls' was born, for the PNG market, with the name symbolic of the beauty of the Melanesian people, all with curly hair.
Just 9 months later and without warning, the twin volcanic eruptions of Mt Tavuvur and Vulcan occurred, all but wiping out iconic Rabaul, once described by Somerset Maugham as 'the pearl of the Pacific'. Eventually escaping the ensuing chaos by boat we returned a couple of weeks later and secured title to our current premises at Keravat a safer 35km from the still active volcanoes.
Tropic Frond Oils / Niugini Organics
Now with 1,150 square metres under factory floor, modern soap and coconut oil production lines and a well equipped lab, Tropic Frond Oils is now a major employer in the Keravat township and the primary source of income for many local villagers, who wild harvest their organic coconuts from their own land.
Since 2008, we have exported our virgin coconut oil and soaps to Australia and New Zealand under our Niugini Organics brand.
Debra Hill (Owner & Co-Director, Niugini Organics)