By Mohamed Seif
For centuries, coconut sap has been used primarily to make wine (mnazi) among coastal communities, but a group of wine tappers and coconut farmers in Rabai, Kilifi County, have now embarked on an ambitious project — making honey.
Determined to break their dependency on a business whose profits are declining, the group, operating as the Mnazi Network Sacco Society (MNSS), is hoping to benefit from a value addition venture that will introduce coconut honey to the market.
The innovation is believed to be an import from India that found its ways into the country after a group of coconut farmers attended a Kenya Coconut Development Authority-facilitated seminar and learnt of it.
“We learnt about this product from another group in a neighbouring village that used to do it, but they have since stopped, so we decided to take it up,” says MNSS Secretary Renson Mbaji.
Only fresh coconut sap that has not stayed longer than six to eight hours after harvesting can be changed into honey.
The group boils the sap for a minimum three hours, though this may vary depending on how much honey is being produced. A chemical transformation brought on by the heat turns the liquid beverage into a brown, sticky derivative, which is the coconut honey.
The sap is stirred often to keep it from boiling over. Once it is ready, it is left to cool before it is packed into plastic bottles. Nothing else is added.
Its taste is unmistakably honey-like, though there is a faint “winey” tinge to it. It is also not as thick as regular bee honey, and is of a paler brown shade. But once you taste it, you’ll want to taste it again, which is in line with the Swahili saying: Asali haichovwi mara moja.
MNSS’ production is still at a very basic level, with firewood used as a heating source, and the mixing done manually.
The sap comes from the wine tappers, with anything that has started to ferment used for mnazi.
According to Mr Mbaji, sap that has stayed too long after harvesting is not recommended for honey as the result is of lower quality.
The group sells a litre of honey at Sh700, and although they have managed to attract a few clients since they started the venture last year, they have yet to secure a constant market.
“We think this venture will improve our economic position because selling mnazi can get too unpredictable. Sometimes its supply in the market is so high that you lack customers and end up selling a one-and-a-half-litre bottle at Sh10, or waste it all together,” said Mbaji.
“But with this product, we see the potential of minimising such losses because instead of throwing the honey, we’ll use it ourselves if we don’t get clients.”
Mr Mwadziya Mtsunga, 55, says their hopes for profit as wine tappers were now pegged on value addition.
“I started tapping wine a long time ago, but even in those days, we used to sell mnazi at Sh5 per bottle, and then it became Sh10. Today we’re selling it at Sh50, but it is still not profitable. We want to go to the next level because our families are depending on us, and it’s been difficult.”
Their challenge now with coconut honey has been finding a steady market for the product, which would allow them expand their revenue base, and improve their packaging materials and production equipment.
According to Mbaji, the level of poverty among MNSS members has also hindered meaningful progress in their venture as the wine tappers are finding it difficult to have to wait for returns.
“Because of the challenges of finding a market for our product, we’ve been forced to continue selling mnazi as our major lifeline as opposed to the honey so that the wine tappers have something that they can get by on every day.”
But the group is determined to hang on to the potential in the product and is looking for ways to get financing from various county agencies.
“We make sure that every week we produce a few litres of the honey so that there is continuity and the product is available constantly,” says Mbaji.
The Kenya Coconut Development Authority (KCDA) acknowledges coconut honey is a valid derivative product and encourages farmers to embrace the innovation in efforts to promote value addition in the largely untapped sector.
In Asia and Pacific countries, coconut honey is known to be a mainstream commercial product, as is its other derivative, jaggery (sukari nguru, or coconut sugar).
According to KCDA, coconut sugar contains lower levels of sucrose and glycemic properties than cane sugar, making it suitable for diabetics.
“Coconut honey can be crystallised to make coconut sugar just like cane sugar is crystallised. And since coconut honey is just a transformation, it still has the properties of coconut sugar,” said Mr Raymond Kahindi, KCDA’s general manager of technical services.
MNSS also makes coconut jam, which is produced by boiling coconut milk. Glucose, lemon, sugar and food colour are then added to the liquid to give the jam different flavours and tastes.