Coconess started in 2012 on a serene plot of land in Singasandra, Bangalore. That year, Kaavya Nag’s friend had told her about the Philippines fuelling American craze for virgin coconut oil, but what piqued her interest most was how the oil was made from coconut meat rather than dry copra.
More than two decades ago, coconut oil fell out of favour in cooking because of its high levels of saturated fats (which is why coconut oil is slow to oxidise and spoil). Though not the best health alternative, coconut oil had found its market in personal care in India with a staggering 90 per cent penetration led by Marico’s Parachute. When Kaavya first showed interest in starting her own business, friends and family encouraged her to go all out or nothing to make a mark in an INR 8,000 crore industry. Talk of crores began, but she declined. What Kaavya wanted wasn’t another brand to join the long list of coconut oil personal care products, but an organic, environmentally sustainable high-quality product.
Kaavya experimented with producing oil from the coconuts in her farms, and the results surprised her. The oil was relatively lighter, clear and had the sweet smell of a ripe coconut. Mass produced oil goes through a process of refining, bleaching and deodorising to separate the copra from fungus and dirt, and a solvent extraction helps extract maximum oil from the nut. It’s an efficient process to increase yield and improve quality. But the resulting oil is yellowish with a heavy, fried oil smell we’ve come to associate with coconut hair oil.
“I started researching where and how people made virgin coconut oil for,” says Kaavya. The Central Food Technology Institute (CFTRI) had the facilities, but they were geared for mass production. On the other hand, the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute (CPCRI) was involved in kitchen-scale processing of virgin coconut oil. It was her best resource. Her business, once it kick-started, would be an all-women enterprise. Kaavya hired women who came from rural Karnataka to manufacture the products she hoped would replace synthetic personal care products in women’s beauty regimen.
Coconess sells a health tonic and a small range of massage oils for women and newborns. She says, “By end of July, we’ll launch our mother and baby care range in Cloud 9, other maternity boutiques and online retailers. We’re already available on Amazon. But once we start scaling, we have partners in Mangalore to help.”
With a monthly revenue of 2-3 lakhs, Kaavya hopes to hit the 10 lakh target in the next six months as production increases. None of this would have been possible without Kaavya’s loyal companions at work, Kusuma and Devamma.
Kusuma was only 14 when she married. With a sheepish smile, she says, “I didn’t finish X standard. I got married, then I was busy looking after my three children.” Before she was married, though, she really wanted to be a District Commissioner. Those aspirations may now be half-forgotten dreams, but Kusuma wants her daughters to fulfil the goals an early marriage ended for her. From a village in Haveri, she says, “There, we have to do farm work. It’s hard, and you don’t have comfort. Here it is better, and I can use my education, but not in my village.”
Devamma, who is from a village in Krushnarajapete, never got to attend school. Bored staying at home, three years ago, she decided to work for Kaavya. As she patiently labels Coconess bottles arranged across the floor, she says, “Even when we come here, we pay rent, so the expenses are the same as in the village. But the life here is better.” Her children, most of whom work in garment factories, teased her. “They laughed at me and said how could I make soaps and make oils – I was just an illiterate.” When Kaavya invited her children to the farm, they were dumbstruck by Devamma’s work. She says they respect her more after realising she could more than cook and clean after them. When asked if either of them has her own aspirations, Kusuma says with a laugh, “If I want my own business, I would like to go back to my village to start.”
At Kaavya’s urban farm, both Kusuma and Devamma have found purpose, and there’s a close womanly bond between all three of them as they work together to help make Coconess more lucrative. Outside, Kaavya’s farm doesn’t sound like it’s just off a chaotic motorway along Electronic City.It’s dense in its greenery, the workers move around freely and the Nags treat them with familial affection. It’s this story Kaavya wants behind every bottle of Coconess her customers buy. “We realise, overtime, it’s not about making high-quality products, but marketing and staying power that builds a brand. But it’s been word-of-mouth for us. To us, it’s about what we’re giving to people, and if that means we can only increase production to a certain limit without compromising quality, then that’s fine.”
At Singasandra, one coconut yields some 30 per cent oil, Kaavya says. But the people at Coconess and their commitment to making quality oils makes up for the remaining 70 per cent.