A few years ago, Veena had a problem: She couldn’t find anyone willing to pick her coconuts.
Veena is a 37-year-old housewife who, like many people in South India, goes by one name. She lives on a small family farm in Kerala, dotted with coconut palms.
Kerala — “land of coconuts” in the local language, Malayalam — used to have plenty of coconut pickers for hire. They were usually lower caste men who’d shimmy up the trees and pick the nuts for a fee.
But about a generation ago, Kerala’s economy began changing. More and more workers in India’s southern states, like Kerala, started to leave for work in Gulf countries, where they could earn more and send extra money home. Others sought higher-paying office jobs as the economy and state investments in education and health improved.
Kerala now has one of the best education systems in India and one of the highest literacy rates. Also, Hinduism’s often-rigid caste system is loosening in some areas. More professional opportunities are opening up for lower-caste families.
But the coconuts still need to be picked.
India is one of the largest coconut growers in the world. In 2016, it produced more than 130 million tons of them – many from Kerala. It’s a billion-dollar industry, sending exports all over the world.
They’re also popular at home. Locals use oil pressed from coconut pulp for cooking, hair styling, skin care and massage. They eat coconut fruit, drink and cook with coconut milk and cream, and whittle into the nuts to sip the water inside with a straw. They make rugs from the hairy fibers on the outside of the coconut and build houses from coconut shells and palm fronds. Some people use coconut roots to brush their teeth.
“Coconuts are a part of life here, and they’re a booming business,” says Mini Mathew, a spokeswoman for India’s Coconut Development Board. “In Kerala, tourism is our No. 1 industry, but coconuts are No. 2.”
Kerala even has a Coconut Museum.
For most of these uses, coconuts have to be hand-picked while they’re still green. If you wait until they fall off the tree naturally, they’re already too ripe.
But, increasingly, people want office jobs. They don’t want to do manual labor — especially not the kind that requires them to climb 80 feet up a palm tree to pick coconuts.
“The few professional climbers left charge a fortune, and their schedules are always full,” says Veena, the housewife. “The coconuts rotted on my trees and fell.”
The labor shortage sent the price of coconuts through the roof. A neighboring Indian state, Tamil Nadu, overtook Kerala in coconut production.
The situation became so dire that Kerala offered a 1 million rupee prize (about $14,000) to anyone who could invent a method for picking coconuts that doesn’t involve scaling 80-foot trees. Officials even looked into training monkeys to do the job.
Surveying her farm littered with rotten coconuts, Veena decided to take matters into her own hands. She signed up for a state-sponsored coconut tree-climbing session.
“We start at 6 o’clock in the morning with yoga, then slowly train them on how to climb the trees,” says Ratha Krishnan, who helped launch Kerala’s coconut climbing clinics seven years ago. “There may be fear, but on the third or fourth day, that fear will go.”
In the old days, climbers used ropes, if anything, to bind themselves to the trees as they shimmed up with a sharp knife or machete tucked into their belts. It was dangerous. Now the state government provides rudimentary climbing equipment — and life insurance.
The most basic type of equipment consists of two metal contraptions that look like stilts. They have metal cables at the top that wrap around the tree and are connected to poles with footsteps and stirrups. Climbers step into a foot rest on the contraptions, one on each leg, to brace themselves against the tree, as they climb up.
With machines to make climbing easier and safer, and local men absent — either because they’re working in offices, or afar in Gulf countries — Kerala’s women have entered the coconut climbing business for the first time. Many of them, like Veena, never worked outside the home before.
The going rate is 30 rupees (about 43 cents) per tree. With training, Veena has whittled her average time per tree down to just three minutes. That’s to summit the tree, cut the coconuts and climb back down again. Veena can climb 40 trees per day, and it’s a year-round activity. (Trees produce nuts every 45 days, but different trees ripen at different times.) If Veena works five days a week, she can earn more than twice India’s average salary of about $1,800 a year.
“It helps our family,” Veena says proudly. “I don’t have to depend on my husband. I can pay for my son’s education.”
Some of the climbing equipment was invented by women.
In 2010, Shyla Joseph, an associate professor at Kerala Agricultural University, designed a prototype for an even safer coconut climbing machine. It has a bicycle seat and a seat belt and works roughly the same way as the stilts-type apparatus: Metal cords are wrapped around the tree, attached to handles. The climber drags the handles up along the tree trunk, locks them in and then drags up a platform on which to sit, and pedals on which to stand.
Joseph has modified it a few times since then, releasing the latest model earlier in 2018. It’s made of stainless steel, which is more resistant to rust in the monsoon season. It retails for about 7,500 rupees (about $107).
“Most of the youth nowadays go into other sectors. This is considered a traditional job. It used to be dangerous,” Joseph acknowledges. “But with some suitable equipment, we’re making an effort to attract them.”
Veena never imagined she’d join the ranks of the nearly all-male coconut climbing force she grew up watching in her neighborhood.
“I never thought it would be me. Normally women don’t venture into such jobs,” she says. “But since I’ve started doing it, I feel proud and confident.”
She and other female climbers are now helping the coconut industry survive in the land of coconuts.
NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this report.