The Fair Trade Coconut Oil Company Empowering Single Mothers
by Alexa D’Agostino
You would think the Dominican Republic is home to pristine beaches and clear blue seas. And it is. But once you walk outside the perfectly manicured walls of a resort, you will see a very different picture: abject poverty.
The unemployment rate in this Caribbean nation, which borders Haiti, is 14 percent. There are few work prospects, and many of the country’s residents lack basic job skills. Dan and Gaby Dalet, founders and owners of SoloCoco—believed to be the only hand-pressed, fair trade-certified, virgin coconut oil made in the Americas—are doing their small part to change that. Natives of the Dominican Republic, Dan and Gaby went to school and worked in the United States before deciding to return, hoping to improve working conditions and employment opportunities.
“There is a lot of government corruption. There are no checks and balances, no accountability, and the elite have all the money,” Dan explains. And up until earlier this year, entrepreneurship had no place in the country.
The husband-and-wife team decided to create a product unique to the D.R. that would also add value as an export. When Dan realized that his country had an abundance of coconuts that weren’t being used, they settled on coconut oil. “Coconuts are not a staple in Caribbean cooking, and weren’t really being used for much. It made sense to focus on coconut oil,” says Gaby. Their decision was a good one: Coconut products of all kinds—coconut water, coconut sugar, virgin coconut oil—are surging in popularity in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Over four years, Dan and his team searched for a way to produce high-quality coconut oil. They eventually landed on the process called Direct Micro Expelling, invented by Australian coconut oil expert and Kokonut Pacific founder Dan Etherington. It is considered a fast way to make pure virgin oil.
In 2013, Dan and his cousin Abel—who is also a SoloCoco cofounder and co-owner—secured a factory in San Pedro de Macorís—a large city with high poverty levels—close to the port and coconut farms. In three days, SoloCoco had more than 400 applicants, 90 percent of which were female. Many were also single mothers. “It’s a hard life for single mothers in the D.R.,” says Dan. “Eight out of nine times the husband has left the mother. These women and their kids are sleeping on the floor, they have no education, no skills, but they need to work. We started with 10, and in three years we’ve only changed three employees out of 20.”
SoloCoco is now committed to employing, supporting, and assisting single mothers. Each quarter, money is set aside to fund an initiative picked by the employees. The mothers have chosen school supplies for their children, a co-pay fund for medical expenses, and English enrichment programs.
Since the summer, Whole Foods has put SoloCoco oil in five stores in and around Boston, thanks to a gamble by Dan. “I sent a case to Whole Foods with a simple note that said the product is hand-pressed, certified fair trade, virgin coconut oil,” says Dan. “It’s the only one made in the Americas and it’s really good. I just asked them to try it. They immediately reached out and told me they loved it and wanted it in their stores.” He says one store ordered a few cases and sold out in less than 36 hours.
Dan, Gaby, their parents, and their cousins all make multiple trips to the United States each month to give customer demonstrations at Whole Foods stores and work on securing new business in the U.S. and abroad. They’ve even been known to take meetings at the airport.
Other stores and suppliers, such as UNFI and Lucy B.—a U.K.-based company that sells natural beauty, bath, body, and home products—are now working to get involved with the company. Dan and Gaby are also expanding SoloCoco’s offerings to include chocolate, skin creams, lotions, and soaps under the brand solocoquette. Gaby spearheads the company’s foray into cosmetics, a space where her knowledge was initially limited. “I didn’t know anything about cosmetics,” says Gaby. “I took a class in New York to learn about chemistry and the types of high quality, pure ingredients that work best for cosmetics.”
SoloCoco has been welcomed by many Dominican businesses. Coconut processors on the island act as mentors, and the company has strong relationships with farmers. So much so that their next initiative is centered on helping them. “For every…soap bought, we are going to plant one coconut tree,” Dan explains. “Farmers are poor and don’t have year-round crops; we can plant coconut trees and they can just let them grow. There is a huge concern over deforestation. Coconuts are a renewable resource [in the D.R.] but the government isn’t making it a priority. This is another way we can give back.”
There have been bumps in the road though. Dan and Gaby are searching for a good distributor to help expand the business, and the factory in San Pedro has been broken into five times in the past year, with the poor desperately looking for things to sell.
“Were there times I thought it wouldn’t work? I’m still afraid it won’t work,” says Dan. “For the rest of my life I will be afraid the impact was not what it could have been. We need to change the mentality in the D.R. It should be: Do well and give back.” That is exactly what Dan, Gaby, and SoloCoco are doing.
Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that the cosmetics line will be called solocoquette, not SoloCoco. Correction: The soap does not come in bar form.
About the Author:
Alexa is currently working on her M.A. in writing and publishing from Emerson College. She works full time in higher education and also writes for the Babson Magazine at Babson College. An avid reader who also loves to travel, Alexa is excited to write for The Culture-ist and to share her experiences around travel, social change and wellness.
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