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Multi-million dollar coconut oil industry benefits tiny Pacific island community

A tiny Pacific island is fast becoming a booming coconut oil producer, several decades after its lucrative phosphate mines closed.

The raised coral island Banaba, part of Kiribati, was so denuded by years of phosphate mining that the British colonial authorities relocated its people to Rabi Island in Fiji.

Now, one Banaban islander and his Australian wife, whose family was involved in phosphate mining for four generations, have built up a company offering work for as many Banabans as the mining once did.

It produces coconut oil destined for the booming international market.

Business owner Ken Sigrah, was uprooted from Banaba with the rest of his people and resettled in Fiji, when the island was rendered uninhabitable after 80 years of phosphate mining.

He says almost 95 per cent of the island was destroyed by mining.

" Now almost all you can see on Banaba is a forest of pinnacles 80 feet high," he said.

"You can't grow anything there!"

He says the islanders were promised their land would be regenerated and they would receive compensation, but that never happened.

The island's elders asked Mr Sigrah to collaborate with Stacey King, whose family had worked in the mine, in writing a book.

"Even though my great-grandfather worked as the chief overseer for the mining company he had taken glass plate photography of old villagers, Ms King said.

"It wasn't just of mining, it was of the people.

"And I realised when I wrote the book this was all lost ... because of mining, because of what our families, all these Australians and New Zealanders (did).

"We're all part of it."

The couple says part of their motivation for starting the coconut oil company was to help the Banaban people.

Mr Sigrah says his adopted Fijian brother suggested coconut oil.

He says they had no idea how to begin, but they set up in their garage in 2004 and haven't looked back.

The product is mostly sourced from a farm in Fiji employing Banabans.

"They now employ 50 of our Banaban families," Stacey King said.

"And that means they get a house provided, their families live there, they're educated at the school there.

"And they're always looking for more people to come over from Rabi and work there."

And the business is booming, especially their edible virgin coconut oil.

Ms King says turnover this financial year could top $AUD3.8 million.

"Every year we sort of jump another million or we're sort of doubling," she said.

"Our profit gains have been between 55 per cent, up to 73 per cent, to 113 per cent, so it's just gone beyond our wildest imaginations really."

And export orders are growing, with orders from Australia, Germany and Canada.

Along with its focus on providing work for the Banaban community, the company has also set up an education foundation for Banaban children back on Rabi.

"The project has actually expanded to about 135 students," Ms King said.

"So we started with just the little primary school children and now it goes up to high school.

"You know, things that we could not even imagine at the start we are able to do now because of a simple coconut and coconut oil."

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