A Forest's Endemic Gift
Garcinia Indica Chois, reviving Kokum vegan butter
Sujata Devadas, December 24 2020
Free gift, abundant in the jungle, a tree that gives fruit after 12 years growth, just pick it up. Distinctive culinary taste in many different Indian states: Maharashtra, Konkan, Karnataka, Gujarat, Goa, Assam, also Kerala, is occasionally attributable to the addition of Kokum fruit rind or peel as the souring agent in a dish. Although India has several varieties of this botanical species, one unique species Garcinia Indica Chois is endemic, growing only in the coastal jungle of Western Ghats - in the forests of Maharashtra state’s Sindhudurg district, in some parts of neighbouring Ratnagiri district and in Goa's north zone. Yet it is listed as VULNERABLE since the last July 16th 2014 assessment in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015.
Dhamapur village in Sindhudurg district, located between the Indian Ocean and the 500 year old Dhamapur Lake with Karli river flowing behind it in Maharashtra state, India.
Source: Google Satellite Image
Birth of a venture
A simple household problem is the genesis of a gem of a venture. In an ancestral household in Dhamapur village where Meenal adds this Kokum fruit’s skin in some curries and makes sherbets with the fruit’s pulp, left over seeds of this fruit were piled up in the corner of the courtyard. When Meenal raised the “what shall we do with it?” question 4 years ago, Mohammad Izak Babalal Shaikh answered, “let’s make butter”. Kokum butter that is low in calorie and does not melt at room temperature, very particular to Maharashtra’s southern most district, Sindhudurg.
Ancestral House of mathematician Vishnupant Desai
“Making Kokum butter was once a perfectly regular activity in every villager’s home in Sindhudurg, our district.” says Mohammad. “This fruit was not cultivated as a crop initially, as the tree takes 12 years to bear fruit, but close to Malwan town, Kokum trees grow luxuriantly in our jungles. This wild fruit is harvested in May. We use Kokum butter oil for cooking.”
Neglecting an advantage
This labor-intensive method of making Kokum butter was sidelined by the commercial industrial economic system that handed a particular concept of ‘progress’ down to ‘underdeveloped’ Asian and African societies. This earlier practice of each rural family making Kokum butter for their own use was replaced by cosmetic industry buying the dried Kokum seeds at a throwaway price: Rs.25/- per kilo now.
These seeds are one ingredient in moisturising creams, soaps, face lotions, body lotions of branded products. Mohammad’s family member Mrunalini Desai adds, “seeds that are exported to the cosmetic industry return to us in the form of a branded product, a facial cream or moisturising lotion for us to purchase”.
Price and adulteration
“Once the seeds became raw material for the cosmetic and pharmaceutical factories, people in this area forgot the edible nature of this oil,” says Mrinal’s father Sachin Desai, Founder of Syamantak University of Life. “In their bid to fit with cosmopolitan trends, contemporary Sindhudurg households forgot it is food, once the oil we used for cooking.”
Kokum butter production moved to factories that used heavy machinery to extract oil from the seeds. When they added hydrogenated vegetable oil to Kokum seed oil to increase the quantity and sell it in the local market at a cheaper price, the pure quality of the butter suffered.
For creative activists and change-makers, revolutions are never violent, because aggression just defeats their purpose right from the start. 4 Dhamapur youngsters from the University of Life - Mohammad, Mrunalini, Shobha and Vishwas - teamed up to look into one ancient custom: making ethnic vegan Kokum butter at home, because they knew that two generations earlier, villagers routinely spread Kokum butter on freshly made rotis, sprinkled salt on it, rolled up and ate it. Buried in the past, it took them 4 years to uncover how to make vegan Kokum butter after extracting oil from it’s seeds.
This group of 4 know how unhygienically villagers reprise the seeds from Kokum fruits to sell them to impersonal cosmetic factories. The skin of Kokum fruit is tough, hard to break. So villagers collect them from the jungle and spread them on the road. Wheels of heavy vehicles go over it, splitting the fruits open to expose the seeds. The seeds are gathered, dried and sold to the cosmetic industry.
Vishwas attending to the stone grinder
Instead, to get the same job done, this group of Dhamapur youths bought a stone grinder. Another improvement they made to extract oil from the seeds successfully is to use a south Indian heavy duty wet grinder; one among several steps.
Over 4 years, bit by bit, they revived the full method that had been neglected by the villagers. Standardising it by October 2020, they pulled it into the foreground. “Now my parents too, 6 of us, are into this venture, each one making different contributions” says Mrunalini. “My parents are good at production design, packaging, marketing and auditing. After putting some of this Kokum butter aside for our own family’s annual dietary requirements, we sold over 10 kilos in 1 month across India through our online store.”
There is a month’s waiting period for buyers to get this authentic Kokum butter now. Observing their success, 2 village youth, Prathamesh Kalsekar with a college degree in agriculture from neighbouring Kalse village and Dhamapur villager Varsha Sutar, joined them.
They definitely understand the value of the forests free gift.
The Ideal Result
These Dhamapur residents have demonstrated authentic Kokum butter’s commercial success and are willing to teach Sindhudurg residents how to make, package and market it. In Mohammad’s words, “reclaim the benefits just as our ancestors did. It is our forest’s gift to human nutrition and to our livelihood. Set aside the annual portion for one’s own family’s dietary needs, sell the surplus. In University of Life’s view, it is ideal if villagers revive the practice of making pure Kokum butter. Our aim is to lift this venture to community level, the seeds are no longer be available for sale … excellent accomplishment.”
Importance of a Forest
The Garcinia Indica Chois Kokum variety thrives in the Konkan jungle’s huge bio-diversity. It becomes vulnerable when subjected to mono-crop cultivation. Protecting the forest’s immensely valuable natural heritage and its endemic gift is therefore of outright importance to the people living around it. Seeds that were discarded as waste now gain value addition as premium vegan cooking oil.
Syamantak University of life’s Management Trustee Mohammad led a number of initiatives while completing his post graduation in Rural Development from Mumbai University. Cottage industry Kokum butter production is the third. Through their first initiative, survey and documentation, the 500 year old Sindhudurg lake overcame environmental threats and has been accorded the World Heritage Irrigation Structure Award, the WHIS tag, by The International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage this year.
As much as his team members and family joined these initiatives, the impact hit tourist guide Manoj Dhamapurkar too. Plying petrol boats on promulgated wetland is illegal. 15 Marathi villages around Malwan town in Sindhudurg district get their fresh water supply from it’s 500-year old Sindhudurg lake. Once the local tourist guide Manoj Dhamapurkar understood the damage caused by ferrying visitors upon this lake, he stopped the petrol boat rides. He changed his job to making ethnic souvenirs and selling them at an Eco-store shop. The shop began 7 days before COVID19 lock down. It set off to a great start by selling something very different from the routine chips-’n-cola. In that one week, Manoj made Rs.28,000 by selling ethnic souvenirs. Syamantak University of Life trained him to make these souvenirs.
Watch this space. Shobha, Vishwas and Mrunalini also have start-up ventures that shape progress by including nature as an ally. They are stamping their identity by partnering with Sindhudurg’s rich natural heritage.
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Manoj Dhamapurkar and Mohammad exchange ideas
L to r: project team members Vishwas, Mohammad, Mrunalini, Sachin, Meenal and Shobha