A coconut is a terrible thing to waste, Baylor researchers believe

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WACO—Within a 40-degree band around the equator lie some of the poorest countries in the world—countries that lack the technology to make full use of natural resources.

But Walter Bradley, distinguished professor of engineering at Baylor University, a team of four research students and a couple of seminary students are working to solve this problem—with coconuts.

Anna Mortan (left) and Elisa Guzman (right), graduate students from Baylor University, drink buko—baby coconut—after a day’s work at the co-op in Ibajay, Philippines.

“We were interested in doing something that would help as many people in the world as possible,” Bradley said. “We were looking for a natural resource that is underutilized.”

After a couple of months of research, Bradley’s team created bio-diesel from coconuts. But they were not satisfied with their discovery. Since the average coconut farmer makes $500 a year, they wanted to discover a use for the coconut that would bring a farmer 10 times the income made now—to move them from $500 to $5,000 a year.

“We didn’t feel like this was a big breakthrough, because the price of the coconut oil for cooking was just a little more than the price you could sell bio-diesel fuel,” Bradley said.

Bradley looked at other parts of the coconut and found potentially useful husk, pith and shell were usually discarded as waste.

“The coir fiber (fiber from the husks) can be used for high-value products such as composites for automobiles,” Bradley said. “We are working with an automobile supplier right now that is working with General Motors.”

Two Filipino girls play on a mound of coconut pith at the co-op in Ibajay Philippines where two Baylor University graduate students worked.

Other products come from the coconut pith. Since it absorbs 10 times its weight in water, pith is useful for gardening and golf courses where water retention is an issue.

Bradley already has found golf courses in Florida wanting to purchase 800 crates of the product a year, equaling about $2 million for farmers, once the product is manufactured.

The shell also can be ground up into fine powder and used to engineer plastics, increasing strength by 50 percent, Bradley said.

Having identified materials that are usable, Bradley is in the process of connecting with companies that will purchase the products. He also is working with missionaries and governments of countries near the equator to connect with the people who could benefit from these discoveries. 

“We want to be working through local Christian and mission groups,” Bradley said. “We want this to work alongside the kingdom-building activities already in place.”

The team is working with two graduate students from Ghana studying at Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary.

“The Ghana students are excited about their seminary degrees but also going back and starting a business where they can disciple others and help with some of the economic opportunities there,” Bradley said.

In Ghana, only the meat and the juice of the coconut are used. The rest is discarded, causing an “environmental nuisance” for the nation, said Vincent Asamoah, a graduate student from Ghana. The waste collects water and becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes and malaria, causing a grave health risk for the country.

“As I go back to help them get jobs to do, I’m sure they will understand how God’s love can be manifested through economic means,” Asamoah said. “Ministry is not just about taking the gospel to the people but to materially take care of the people.”

Asamoah plans to return to Ghana in December once he obtains his degree to direct the project development there.

The team also made contacts for project development in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Mexico.

“I went to the Philippines last summer to do some preliminary work,” said Elisa Guzman, a Baylor graduate student working on the project.

“We worked with the people, and that one-on-one interaction just sealed why we were doing this and how we could help. We saw a great desperation for a better life—not for luxury, but basic needs of education, clean water, food and ways to provide for themselves.”

The greatest need for the project right now is discovering people who are willing to help with “social investing”—investors who don’t mind a high risk and usually low return because their purpose is to help people, Bradley said.

Three of the four students involved with the project plan to continue their effort with this ministry once they graduate. Bradley is working to get everything in order to start production in some locations by January 2009.

“This isn’t for the sake of making technology but to make a lasting impact on people in the world,” Guzman said.

“They are going to be able to make products not just from the oil but from the waste too. Like the name (of our company), Whole Tree, the theme is that you can take everything from the coconut and do something with it—making anything from oil to building materials.”

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