The two sisters sat in the airport lounge, waiting for their flight to Kerala. It was delayed. They were keen to get going. Their mother had died the day before and they were going to settle her affairs. “She had a good life. She lived to 97,” explained one of the sisters. “You know what her secret was? Coconuts.”
Indians have long embraced the benefits of coconut, which is rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals and is used in traditional medicine as well as being transformed into shampoo and oil. In Kerala, the liquid is also distilled into a fiery toddy. When I got home I checked on the ladies’ claims about coconut’s longevity-providing powers. I discovered women in Kerala, the country’s coconut capital, enjoy the longest life expectancy of anyone in India, an average of 77.2 years. Coincidence?
India grows 15 billion coconuts a year and the Coconut Development Board claims an average family uses 30 a month. They are worth £11bn to the economy. But while coconuts are highly prized, the industry is facing a slow crisis. Coconuts are traditionally harvested by men who scale the trees and chop them with a machete.
Yet better opportunities and education – Kerala also has the highest literary rate – means the number of people who want to pick coconuts is declining. Four years ago the board offered a one million rupee prize to anyone who could invent a machine that could climb a tree and harvest a coconut. The competition drew lots of ingenious entries. None were successful.