In September 2005, Dr. Justin Arboleda, an outstanding Filipino scientist and educator, received the prestigious Global 100 Eco Tech Award during the Japan World Expo held in Tokyo, Japan. The honor was extended to him “in recognition of your outstanding contribution to the resolution of global environmental problems and to the creation of a sustainable future.”
Owner-operator of the Coco Technologies Corporation, Dr. Arboleda turned the once-ignored ordinary coconut husks into export-quality products. Among the products that can be produced out of coconut husk are coir grow bags, coir grow cubes, coir dusts, coir peats, and coir nets. While most of these products are still taken for granted by most Filipinos, these are considered gold in foreign countries.
The 30 X 30 X 15 centimeters coir block that weights only 4-1/2 kg each is now used as soil alternatives for growing vegetables and flowers in Europe. It is so light that about 4,800 coir blocks weigh only about 21,000 kilos, and thus, make I easy to transport from the factory to gardens in the city.
The size of the coconut husk chip that is also used as garden or pot soil, ranges only from .03 to 18 millimeters. The coir grow bags are used in hydroponics, a soil-less method for growing plants. One of the most sought after coconut products of the Coco Technologies Corp. It has been exported for the past few years to countries that grow commercial flowers all over the world.
The coir grow cube is specially designed for growing seedling each. Being 100 percent organic, the seedling rapidly produces dense root system that does not frequent watering. The cubes are also very easy to dispose.
“Netherlands considers are coco coir peat very handy, environmentally safe and friendly. Being an organic material, biodegradable with pH ranging only from 5.4 to 6.5, they want to buy all the coir peat produced by us,” said Dr. Arboleda. “ But we are still negotiating for the price.”
Another coconut product that has a very large potential at the market abroad is the coir rope net, “We started developing this product at the College of Agriculture of Bicol University.” Said Dr. Arboleda, “ We employed about 2,000 families of coconut farmers to make the twine from the fiber of coconut husk. The twine is then made into a net which is used for preventing soil erosion from denuded hillside.”
Public works engineers who have involved in the construction of roads and highways that go through denuded forest mountains have found coco coir nets to be more effective and less expensive than concrete blocks from controlling soil erosion from bare hills. With the coco coir nets, they can easily allow the trees to grow on the hillside for at least 5 years. By the time the coir nets start rooting, the trees are tall enough to withstand erosion.
On the other hand, concrete blocks are placed at the root of the hill only to rode the eroded soil but they do not protect the soil before eroding.
“After learning the benefits derived from the coco coir nets, especially for controlling erosion on the hillside of Tagaytay City and in Taal, Batangas, we started getting orders for our coir nets from road construction companies in Germany, Malaysia and Japan, added Dr. Arboleda.
Dr. Arboleda , a former dean of the College of Agriculture at the Bicol University at Albay from 1985-1996, started his research on the various potential good export products that can be derived from coconut husks in 1991. “What inspired me to go into this venture was a study conducted by the United States of Agency for International Development (USAID) in that year, revealing that the coconut farmers was the poorest in the Bicol region, in spite of the nearness of the region to Metro Manila. “ he related.
“Yet based on our own studies, this region has a very rich soil, and at present, it is no longer frequently battered by typhoons.”
With about 70 percent of the total land area in the Bicol region planted to coconut trees, he blamed the poverty situation to the College of Agriculture of his university. He then instructed the research staff of the college to find out the reasons for the poverty of the farmers. “ Based on their studies, most of the coconut farmers had no knowledge on how to utilize the other parts of the coconut tree, “ he said. “ The farmers produced only copra from these coconut trees. With the low farmgate price of copra and the high cost of labor, transport, and fuel, they hardly made any money from it. “
Dr. Arboleda was to learn later that most of the coconut farmers were ignorant of the other parts of the coconut tree, particularly the husks and leaves. For these reason, he pointed to the university, accountable. “ I found out that our curriculum was based on University of the Philippines Los Baños College of Agriculture. In other words, it was a curriculum that was based on rice and corn farming. I did not carry any subject on coconut products and utilization, “ he recalled.
In 1991, I decided to revamp our curriculum. We included such subjects like fertilizer application for coconut trees, inter-cropping, utilization of the other parts of the coconut trees and nuts that would enable the farmers to earn extra income. Then, on our part, we asked ourselves what the College of Agriculture should do to alleviate the poverty situation of our coconut coconut farmers, said Dr. Arboleda.
A major concern that emerged from the studies and discussions on the result of the research was, how to utilize the hundreds of tons of coconut husks that were produced from the nuts made into copra. Not knowing what to do with these wastes, the farmers merely throw or burn these husks.
“So we also started doing some research on the uses of these husks which can serve as added source of income for the coconut farmers, “ said Dr. Arboleda. “ But, when we asked the Department of Education and Culture, Department of Agriculture and other government financing agencies to fund our research, none heeded our request. They believed that being a provincial college, we have not enough capability to conduct the study.”
But because of my insistence, we finally got a grant from the Canadian government to undertake the specific study, particularly on the commercial utilization of coconut husk, coir and fiber from 1993 to 1995. After finishing this research, we immediately transferred the technology to the coconut farmers in the Bicol region. We taught them to make some saleable products from the husks. We even provided them with some prototypes of machineries for processing the husks into fiber or coir, “ noted Dr. Arboleda.
Many of the coconut farmers , however, thought that there was no market for the products. Many also thought that the process was expensive and they did not have the capital to finance the project. Neither did they have the money to buy the processing machines. Worse of all the local farmers’ cooperative and rural banks didi not want to lend money for such kind venture as they found it too risky.
“So I decided to go into the business myself ”. recalled Dr. Arboleda. “ I formed a corporation and opened a factory to produce the coco coir and other products in the Bicol region in 1995. By 1996, we have already exported P10 million worth of our various products every year to Japan, Korea, China, United States, and the Netherlands.
He expects to increase the value of his export to about P100 million next year, when his corporation finally puts into operation a contract signed with China. “ At present, we are already conducting the pilot project that will enable the Chinese government to grow crops using coir cubes in the vast desert lands of the Ganzu province in inner Mongolia, “he explained.
While most of the products exported by Coco Technologies Corporation is presently used by gardeners, flower growers and road engineers in foreign countries, it has not given up hope that one day, these products would be sold in the local markets. “ This is our primary goal, to be able to sell our products to our own people. This will teach our countrymen to appreciate the beautiful gift given to them by God.” said Dr. Arboleda.
“I was able to discuss this plan to former DA Secretary Arthur Yap to teach our technologies to the government extension workers, so that in turn, they can teach these technologies to our coconut farmers. In this way, we’ll not only help the country’s dying coconut industry, but also provide additional income to our coconut farmers, “ said Dr. Arboleda
“Sec. Yap agreed to my plan and he even set aside some funds to finance the program. But unfortunately, he had to resign before we could implement the plans.”
In terms of area planted, the Philippines has the largest coconut area in the world of Southeast Asia.
A close second is Indonesia. But with the rampant cutting down of coconut trees, the country may soon lose its place to Indonesia. By teaching the farmers how to utilize their coconut husks and other by- products, they will think twice before selling their coconut trees to coco lumber companies.
Dr. Arboleda also received the Gold Award for Agriculture Export in December 2004, and was bestowed honors several times for his dedicated service to the country’s coconut industry. Born in Albay some 55 years old, he won a scholarship from the Japanese government to study and obtain his bachelor and master’s degree at the Tokyo University. Later, he finished his doctorate degree from the Tsukaba University, also in Japan. He is married to the former Julie Obligacion with whom he has one child.
“So, I decided to go into the business myself, “ recalled Dr. Arboleda. “ I formed a corporation and opened a factory to produce the coco coir and other products in the Bicol region in 1995. By 1996, we have already exported P10 million worth of our various products every year in Japan, Korea, China, United States and Netherlands.”