Coconuts and Co-Ops: Preserving Culture in a Kiribati Village

Participating in a coconut sugar collective helps Tiitika Iita and Utireta Tebou buy school supplies for their children.
Participating in a coconut sugar collective helps Tebwebwe Tekemau and Tiikoba Terarua buy school supplies for their children. All photos by Janice Cantieri.

“This helps us. It doesn’t meet all of our expenses, but still, it helps,” smiles Tiitika Iita, as we sip water mixed with his homemade kamwaimai, a sweet coconut syrup. “We have a son in preschool, and this helps us provide for his books, pens, and other expenses.”

Iita, 20, and his wife, Utireta Tebou, 21, live a primarily subsistence-based lifestyle in Taneau Village, Kiribati, but they earn between $30 and $60 a month making coconut sugar and the syrup we’re tasting in our sweet drinks. The pair work collectively with four other couples as part of a social enterprise, Kiribati Organic Producers. The project helps families in Kiribati’s outer islands remain economically self-sufficient, while reviving the cultural knowledge associated with sugar production and the traditional division of labor within the village.

The group uses a traditional practice, te karekare, to divide the work. Each of the five families collects the sap from the coconut flower, known as toddy, every four hours. They then hand it off it to another couple, who cook the toddy until it caramelizes and turns into sugar. The couples spend two days cooking the sugar, and every ten days, they each earn between $10 and $20.

Te karekare “is a practice from our ancestors,” Iita explains. “We work as a group and we all bring a certain amount. When it’s your turn to make the sugar, you get to make all of it and keep all of the money. This makes it less tiring and breaks up the work.”

Iita and Tebou work closely with Tebwebwe Tekemau, 30, and his wife Tiikoba Terarua, 31, one of the other couples in the cooperative. I joined the —> Read More