Rapid overview of the coconut sector in Vanuatu

Vanuatu is an archipelago of 80 islands and islets (of which 20 are inhabited) straddling the 13th and 22nd parallels, over a distance of about 850 kilometres. The total population stood at 272,459 in 2016 with about 75% in rural area and 25% concentrated in Port-Vila, the capital on Efate island and Luganville on Santo island.
Click to enlarge
Since 1870 and during more than one century, copra has been the mainstay of the New Hebrides economy. Copra accounted for 76% of export earnings in 1981, one year after the Vanuatu Independence, and still for 42% in 2016. Copra remains the main cash crop, especially in the remote islands, even if, since 2000, kava became increasingly important as a cash crop and as an export product. The coconut sector contributes 45% to GDP, which is more than half of that provided by tourism which is Vanuatu’s biggest industry (Vanuatu national coconut strategy 2016—2025).

According to the last agricultural census, there were about 9.7 million coconut trees in 2007, over an estimated land area of 120,000 hectares. Only 42% of coconuts were used for making copra and oil, leaving the other 58% for non-economic uses (food, animal feeding, drinking, fuel, medicine, etc.) or unused and left to germinate in the plantations. Globally the percentage of trees according to age was as follows: 2% less than 5 years old; 22% between 5 and 19; 58% between 20 and 49; and 18% more than 50 (Vanuatu National Agricultural Census, 2008). 

A part of copra production is processed into oil for export and for local use, mainly to supply power plant in the urban centers and in a few rural areas. Private companies have recently developed plant to produce organic copra oil or virgin oil.

The extension of the coconut plantations has substantially modified the traditional smallholder farming and reduced the area available for food crops, even if gardens and coconut trees are frequently associated in complex annual-perennial systems involving intercropping and other agricultural enterprises, such as livestock production. Coconut stands are often associated with perennial crops and, during the first years after coconut planting, with food crops like sweet potatoes, taro, and more recently kava. When the trees become adult, cattle grazing under coconut is also very common. 

To optimize land use, it is necessary to increase the productivity of the coconut groves by using improved coconut cultivars when establishing new plantations or replanting old ones. 

To go further:

National Green Export Review of Vanuatu: Copra-Coconut, Cocoa-Chocolate and Sandalwood. 2016. UNCTAD United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. 
Vanuatu Agriculture Sector Policy 2015-2030. The Government of Vanuatu. 
Labouisse JP. 2004. Systèmes agraires et économie du cocotier au Vanuatu : historique et perspectives. Journal de la Société des Océanistes. Musée de l’Homme-CNRS, 118 : 11-33. doi: 10.4000/jso.69. 
Weightman Barry. 1989. Agriculture in Vanuatu. A historical review. 1989. The British Friends of Vanuatu.