Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer
WHEN RHOAN Williams decided to get involved in pastry making as a means of providing for his family, grater cakes and gizzadas —two Jamaican favourites — were high on his list of sweet-tooth items. Given the differences in appearance to the casual observer, it might not be obvious at first glance that grated coconut is the primary ingredient in the brown-coloured gizzada and the more aesthetically appealing 'pink on top', as the grater cake is sometimes called.
In Wilberforce, Brown's Town, where Williams lives, or any of the neighbouring communities in St Ann, coconuts are relatively easy to procure. However, grating the required number of coconuts to meet market demand would take a lot of work, time or money to pay someone to do this very labour-intensive task. After breaking the coconut, it then has to be husked, before being grated. In addition to the risk of personal injury - cutting oneself with the knife or grating off a piece of thumb - such a large-scale operation also raises public concerns. Williams wasn't worried, though, he had a plan.
Today he is able to meet the demand for grated coconuts - which sometimes runs as high as 120 - with a mechanical grater, his own invention that he has plans to upgrade to an electrical appliance.
While working in St Andrew, he was exposed to what, for all intents and purposes, was a 'commercial grater'. The Tacius Golding Comprehensive High School graduate, recalling the operating principle of the equipment, put pen to paper and presented his drawing to a welder to build to specifications. In the meantime, he went about making the detachable blades, cutting grooves of varying depths into them.
The contraption mounted on a table is operated by one person pressing half a coconut, still in the shell, against the serrated blades, which are rotated by grasping the handle and turning with the right hand.
I watched in awe as the firm coconut was reduced to 'trash' in seconds. I asked him to repeat the process, again and again.
"People wonder how I get it so fine. Them (the serrated edges) are not all on the same level, so if one misses, the next one will pick up - that is why it is so fine," Williams recounted. "You have to know how to turn the coconut, too. Me don't see what them can come up with now to beat this and, worse, if me put it on electricity because it work so fast," he explained.
I then declined the invitation to try my hand, recognising that even though it represents a vast improvement over the hand grater, Williams had 12 years' experience on me. That's how long he's been using the devices, during which time he has had two others built and sold. Now he wants to take it to the next level by modifying a sander motor, attaching a pulley to allow it to be operated in much the same way older editions of the sewing machine were operated via a foot pedal.
No electrician, this inventor has not yet worked out the details of how to make the electrical upgrade but will not be deterred in this quest. Declaring that it is still in his head, he will again transmit the plan to paper before seeking help to make it a reality. The plan, however, is to incorporate in the final design the flexibility for electrical use and, in the event of a power outage, an easy return to the mechanical operation. Easily dismantled to allow for cleaning (washing), it will also have various interchangeable blades to facilitate the grating of additional produce such as sweet potato or cassava.
While his invention represents a triumph of tenacity and perseverance over hardship, Rhoan Williams remains humble, his mind seeking out the next challenge, such as how to utilise the leftover coconut shells. An item much in demand as raw material for craft, he now has trouble unloading it.
"A man used to buy them for craft items but the amount a trouble me have to go through fi carry them go give him and him nuh want come fi dem, it makes no sense," he related. Still, this St Ann resident said he is able to make use of a limited amount of the husks which, when burnt, is very effective as a mosquito repellent.