Top image: Coco Veda
A typical Coco Veda craftswoman’s day starts with processing organic cold-processed virgin coconut oil and raw coconut sugar from coconuts sourced from coconut farmer cooperatives in the Philippines. These are then formulated and mixed with other plant-based ingredients in the form of extracts and oils that eventually bring about Coco Veda’s line of personal care and wellness products.
Aside from being a key ingredient in the products, the coconut also symbolises something else for these craftswomen: newfound independence and the ability to provide a better life for their families and children.
The Coconut Trade
Consumers vote with their dollars. If making more intentional choices with our products helps disadvantaged communities, it’s a win-win for all.
For 24-year-old Simarna Singh, the founder of health and wellness social enterprise Coco Veda, she wanted her foray into the coconut industry to be meaningful to her customers and suppliers. The United Nations Youth Ambassador chose to focus on developing a wide catalogue of unisex health and wellness products that are genuinely inclusive and support sustainable development.
As such, Coco Veda works with farmer cooperatives in the Philippines and employs a team of craftswomen there as part of their operations team. Today, the company has developed over 100 products that everyone can use, including babies and elderly folks.
Simarna believes that “there are very few companies delivering impact” in the industry, like Coco Veda. For one, Coco Veda sources the raw produce from farmer cooperatives instead of buying coconuts from middlemen, which delivers twice the income value to these co-ops.
“Furthermore, by utilising the Virgin Coconut Oil as a lead ingredient in our wide range of handcrafted products, we are creating further livelihoods, as opposed to just using machinery,” says Simarna.
“For Coco Veda, our purpose is meaningful, and we want to emphasise this within our entire business model. Our goal is to encourage all our stakeholders to take sustainable action with Coco Veda,” says Simarna.
A Day in the Life of a Coconut Craftswoman
Every day looks a little different for the coconut craftswomen of Coco Veda. As their operations are primarily manual, the women are actively involved in every step, from processing virgin coconut oil to bottling and labelling the end product.
Before joining Coco Veda, these women were primarily housewives. To ease them into the process, the team adopts the Japanese Kaizen manufacturing philosophy, which focuses on continuous improvement and efficiency. The work can get intensive and strenuous, but being part of the wellness trade benefits these women in more ways than one.
“It has made us feel empowered, and we are proud to be able to provide for and be the breadwinner of our families,” the craftswomen of Coco Veda tell me over email. The women now earn a sustainable income to support their families and give their children a good education.
In honing their skills and learning the trade, the women are instilled with a sense of purpose and confidence. These intangible but uplifting elements precipitate the most significant changes in the lives of these coconut craftswomen.
“It has helped me build my self-esteem and improve my standing as a woman in our community.”
In an era of conscious consumerism — where consumers are increasingly aware of the need for sustainability and the ruse of greenwashing — businesses like Coco Veda are working to be more transparent with their sourcing and business practices.
“It’s fair to say, even before the pandemic, that most businesses were only about profit,” says Simarna. “We wanted to be different and make something very meaningful out of the business,” she continues.
Indeed, the priorities for both consumers and businesses have shifted since COVID-19 first entered our lives.
“I think brands need to understand the tremendous opportunity behind strategically incorporating social and environmental impact for their communities and business. That’s where we stand out,” asserts Simarna.
On top of ethically sourcing her ingredients and supporting disadvantaged communities, Simarna ensures Coco Veda’s products educate consumers on sustainability — even in usage. For instance, a key feature is that their concentrated body washes and shampoos are waterless and alcohol-free, so you only need a few drops to create lather and cleanse.
“We are making an impact for the farmers and the women. But at the same time, we are making an impact on anybody who wants to lead a more sustainable lifestyle.”
The Wild Wild West of E-Commerce
As with any fledgling business, it’s not lost on Simarna that profit ensures Coco Veda’s ability to continue supporting the coconut craftswomen and farmers. More than just covering her overhead costs, one of the biggest challenges for Simarna is getting her message out there to people who resonate with Coco Veda’s values.
“That’s the biggest challenge that most businesses face, especially with social enterprises where you’re trying to make and deliver impact,” Simarna explains.
In today’s increasingly competitive retail market, it’s easy to get lost in the sea of thousands of other brands. Even with an initiative that does as much social good as Coco Veda, it’s easy to miss them without the right kind of exposure.
“I think it’s fair to say that we are disrupting the personal care and wellness industry; the challenge is that we’re not well enough known to make sure that there is enough disruption that’s taking place,” says Simarna.
If there’s anyone that knows the ins and outs of the e-commerce landscape, Alibaba comes to mind.
Alibaba’s E-commerce Bootcamp
Alibaba launched its first-ever E-commerce Bootcamp in Singapore last September, collaborating with the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise (raiSE) and Nanyang Polytechnic’s Singapore Institute of Retail Studies (SIRS).
The 10-week Bootcamp aimed to provide local social enterprises with the necessary digital commerce knowledge and skills to serve the interests of the communities they champion.
Understanding how algorithms and SEO work requires expertise; as such, the Bootcamp was conducted by professional trainers from Taobao Education — the training and education arm of Alibaba — with assistance from SIRS to help provide local context. To ensure fledgling companies like Coco Veda can reap the full benefits of the training, the Bootcamp was sponsored in full by Alibaba.
This newfound knowledge has proven invaluable to Simarna: “They taught us content marketing tools, tips, and strategies to boost customer engagement.” This also included setting up their e-commerce page on Lazada and helping them better engage their current customer base and reach a new pool of customers in a more cost-effective way.
“The coaches were there to help us with personalised recommendations. We’d ask them a barrage of questions about strengthening our engagement and even finance and admin-related issues. They were extremely patient and helpful in answering all these,” Simarna puts forth.
Setting up your webpage and going through the nitty-gritty of setting up your e-commerce store is a continuous learning process. The internet is a fickle place, and directing traffic to your website is a tricky business.
With the Bootcamp, Simarna learned how to use the tools available to her to reach a bigger pool of customers and drive sales, which ultimately benefited both Coco Veda and their team of craftswomen and farmer cooperatives.
The Bootcamp created a safe space for young social entrepreneurs to tailor questions to their specific business sectors and impact areas. “It was always a two-way conversation,” asserts Simarna, “I think that’s super important in workshops.”
Running a Social Enterprise in a Post-Pandemic World
Simarna aims to continue reaching new heights in terms of visibility and expanding to international markets so that Coco Veda can continue empowering their craftswomen.
It’s no secret that the pandemic has changed how we do things and upended many businesses. Still, according to Simarna, the pandemic has also led consumers to care more about where their products come from.
As more customers turn to more thoughtful choices, the future of Coco Veda looks bright. With sustainability firmly embedded into its business model, Simarna hopes it will result in a domino effect in the wellness space.
“I hope that we are an inspiration to other brands. Such that, they also endeavour to make an impact as well, seeing how much good it will do.”