Sri Lanka is truly a land of island bounty, and yes, there is a pun intended there, because chief among our island bounty is the humble coconut. As Sri Lankans, we tend to use coconut for, well, everything we can. And why not? The coconut is tasty, nutritious beyond compare, and something that you can find anywhere on the island.
Sri Lanka is also the fourth largest exporter of fresh and dried coconut products in the world, with popular exports including desiccated coconut, brown fibre, virgin coconut oil, and coconut water through a number of exporters to a variety of markets and market levels.
Today, Brunch focuses on a small business that takes the Sri Lankan coconut to the world in a unique way, as high-quality organic products for the discerning customer wanting to look and feel good in the healthiest and most sustainable way possible.
Coconut Miracle, by its own admission, is ethical, original, and organic. The brainchild of its Founder and CEO Shanthini Ahangama, who goes as Shani, this small company was founded in 2010 and over the ensuing 10 years has become its own powerhouse, introducing and promoting the goodness of Sri Lankan coconut products to the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Japan, and China.
Shani’s tireless work over the last 10 years to promote both a healthy lifestyle and the bountiful goodness of the Sri Lankan coconut was recognised last month at the Women in Management (WIM) Top50 Professional and Career Women Awards 2021, with Shani being named Upcoming Woman Entrepreneur.
Brunch chatted with Shani about how Coconut Miracle came to be and what it’s been like championing one of the most Sri Lankan of products overseas.
The birth of Coconut Miracle
Shani, who grew up in Sri Lanka, moved to the UK in 2001, where she worked in marketing, working with airlines like Qantas and British Airways. Her love for Sri Lanka never died, and she wanted to do something to promote Sri Lankan products.
The idea for Coconut Miracle germinated within Shani when she received a flyer from a friend that talked about the benefits of virgin coconut oil and how it was a very strong Sri Lankan export product. “I scanned through the flyer, and thought ‘this is exactly what I want to be doing!’ and that was how Coconut Miracle was born,” Shani recalled.
Coconut products had always interested Shani, even as a child when coconut was used in the house for many things from cooking to nourishing her hair. “It was when I actually researched coconut oil after the idea for Coconut Miracle that I distinguished the differences between the different types of coconut oil,” Shani explained, noting: “Basically, there is refined coconut oil and unrefined coconut oil, and at Coconut Miracle we focus on unrefined coconut oil because it is raw and retains all the antioxidants and other beneficial properties of the coconut. The fact that everything about the coconut is retained in unrefined virgin coconut oil really resonated with me.”
Being able to relate to the product makes all the difference for Shani, who said: “I’m a little bit into health and wellness. I’m a yogi; I’ve done yoga for over 20 years, and I like to ‘walk the talk,’ so to speak, when it comes to living healthy. So if I’m exporting a healthy product, then I have to be able to emulate the true essence of that product within me.”
The name Coconut Miracle did take some brainstorming – when registering the company in the UK, Shani had initially wanted to name it something along the lines of ‘the organic coconut company’ but this was rejected by the registrar of businesses for being too generic. Then the name ‘Coconut Miracle’ randomly sprang to mind in what Shani calls “divine inspiration”. By happy coincidence, there is even a book with the same name about the miraculous benefits of coconut written by an American professor named John Forsythe.
The first year of Coconut Miracle saw Shani working tirelessly on the project outside of her day job. She shared that she would go so far as to make cold calls to potential customers from her car during lunch hour so as to use her free time wisely and not infringe upon her other work. Her perseverance paid off, and two years later, in 2013, Shani made the move back to Sri Lanka, both to be closer to her Sri Lankan-based parents and to focus on Coconut Miracle full-time.
Taking the humble Sri Lankan coconut global
All Coconut Miracles products are 100% organic, and given that Coconut Miracle was established in 2010, long before organic became the buzzword that it has become in Sri Lanka today, we asked Shani how she went about sourcing organic coconut and coconut oil.
The answer was surprisingly straightforward – she worked with Control Union Certification, an organisation with a foundation in agriculture that certifies organic estates, which did much of the legwork of sourcing and appraising organic estates in Sri Lanka that Coconut Miracle could work with. “It was a little difficult to find, but the Control Union was very supportive,” Shani shared, adding that recently, the Control Union even applied a standard organic certification to Sri Lanka and Coconut Miracle was one of the first companies to register for certification.
With Coconut Miracle now exporting to the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Japan, and China, we asked Shani how the demand varies from market to market and learned that coconut butter is a favourite product worldwide, most often used in cooking and as a flavour enhancer. The international Coconut Miracle network, however, is one that came into being over a great deal of time, with some of their agents overseas being people Shani has known for years, and some being people who have reached out to her because of their interest in the products and their benefits.
The most competitive markets globally are the East-Asian markets, especially markets like Malaysia and Indonesia that also have an abundance of their own home-grown coconut products, making them less likely to shift to Sri Lankan coconut products as a market. However, Shani shared that (in her view) the Sri Lankan coconut is the best in terms of both quality and taste, and this conclusion is something that customers in these markets also come to after trying out Coconut Miracle’s products.
“Certain markets are prone to move towards quality and will always go for Sri Lankan coconut products for this reason,” Shani said, adding: “I would say that the UK recognises this the most, and even when Coconut Miracle began in 2010, there was a slight demand for coconut products which was growing. At the time, coconut was emerging as a superfood and wellness product, and in the early days, and even now, what inspired people to work with me is the fact that I am a Sri Lankan promoting a Sri Lankan product. That was a big USP for me, as well as wanting to do it right and prioritising customer service. I believe in under-promising and over-delivering so that the customer always walks away with a positive experience.”
The challenges of going global
In terms of taking the coconut and organic coconut products global, some of the biggest challenges lay in the competitiveness of the market, especially in East Asian markets that have their own coconut industries.
Another challenge was overcoming biases that form because of geography – for example, being confused with the Indian subcontinent, and having to build a different impression, not just in the minds of customers, but in the minds of stakeholders as well, which is where Shani’s committed customer service would come in.
The biggest challenge right now is differentiating the Sri Lankan coconut in a market that is saturated, where customers don’t know the difference between Sri Lankan coconut products and other coconut products until they taste and feel the difference. “The biggest challenge is for people to switch from whatever they’re using to Coconut Miracle,” Shani explained, adding that Coconut Miracle is also not the cheapest option, which the brand offsets through promotions and awareness drives where people can sample Coconut Miracle’s products. This is how they capture the market as well as the awareness of the people.
A momentous milestone
While Coconut Miracle has had many memorable moments over the last decade, we asked Shani about its most recent milestone, one that is as personal as it is professional – being named Upcoming Woman Entrepreneur at the WIM Top50 Professional and Career Women Awards 2021.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Shani said, adding: “I’ve never gone after awards or been interested in that aspect of things, but a colleague of my brother’s called me and told me I simply had to apply, saying, ‘it’s right up your street,’ so I got some info across to WIM. For WIM to recognise my efforts and recognise that I have done something even slightly significant is amazing and is definitely the freshest achievement and the most remarkable one for me from the Coconut Miracle journey so far.”
For more information on Coconut Miracle and their products please visit their website http://www.coconutmiracle.com/