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Coconut water and entrepreneurs

Published:Wednesday | October 19, 2011 | 12:00 AM

The highest manifestation of life consists in this: that a being governs its own actions. A thing which is always subject to the direction of another is somewhat of a dead thing. - St Thomas Aquinas

In 2003, childhood friends Ira Liran and Michael Kirban were doing what many young adults do - spending a night on the town, enjoying life. The two struck up a conversation with a pair of Brazilian girls. When asked what they missed most about Brazil, the girls responded without hesitation: coconut water. Two months later, Ira, disgruntled with his day job and in hot pursuit of one of the girls, visited Brazil and commenced the business plan that would change his life.

Just over a year after learning of Brazil's obsession with coconut water, Ira and Michael began bottling the drink in Brazil for distribution in the United States. Their brand, Vita Coco, initially available in only a few speciality stores in New York, quickly developed a cult following.

Coconut water's nutritional benefits - low in calories and packed with electrolytes, potassium, and other essential vitamins and minerals - also made it a quick favourite among the celebrity set. The company has attracted investments and endorsements from some of its most renowned customers, including Madonna, Demi Moore, and, most recently, Rihanna.

A mere eight years after that chance encounter in a New York bar, Vita Coco is now valued at US$200 million, making it the largest player in the rapidly growing US coconut water market. The company projects sales of US$100 million this year, up from US$40 million last year and US$20 million in 2009. Demand is so great that the company has expanded its manufacturing operations beyond Brazil into Southeast Asia - building a US$5-million manufacturing plant in the Philippines.

As if the immense success of Vita Coco wasn't enough, company founder Ira Liran eventually married the Brazilian woman who introduced him to her coconuts. Call it destiny.

Destiny

Jamaica's destiny is too closely connected to government and politics. Too many complaints begin with the words "Government needs to ... ." But it is abundantly clear to most of us that Government does not work for the people, as it should, but instead works for itself and its cronies. The people are simply a convenient tool to be tapped, as needed, to secure power.

Jamaica faces significant development challenges, which successive governments have proven incapable of resolving. It is up to ordinary Jamaicans - farmers and higglers, grocery store operators and wholesale suppliers, business managers and account clerks - to take substantial but calculated risks, through free enterprise, to spark sustainable development in this country.

The task of an entrepreneur is doubly complicated when faced with an ineffective - and oftentimes obstructionist - government like ours. But if there exists a people particularly suited for the job, it is our people. Jamaica has a history of producing successful entrepreneurs - 'Butch' Stewart; Michael Lee Chin; Raymond Chang; the scores of unheralded small and micro-business operators who continue, every day, to make something out of nothing.

Our entrepreneurial drive is evident both at home and abroad. A recent report by the Fiscal Policy Institute's Immigration Research Initiative showed that immigrants own nearly half of all small businesses in New York City. The report lists Jamaicans as among the top 10 represented groups among those immigrants.

Opportunities

Tremendous potential exists to unleash our entrepreneurial spirit in Jamaica. With labour costs rising in China and its currency, the yuan, poised to increase after years of manipulation, many companies will be looking to establish manufacturing bases elsewhere. The near-shoring industry - outsourcing business processes to locations nearer to home - is ripe for exploitation. And opportunities abound in alternative energy, information technology, and agro-processing.

Resources are available for entrepreneurs who need guidance. Billionaire Richard Branson recently launched his Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship in Montego Bay - geared towards developing tourism entrepreneurs in Jamaica. The Jamaica Business Development Corporation provides fledgling ventures with a wealth of start-up advice. The University of the West Indies and Mona School of Business also offer valuable services to budding entrepreneurs.

Remember the golden rule of business and politics: 'He who has the gold, makes the rules.' It's time for a new generation of Jamaicans to get the gold and make the rules that will advance our country. If a couple ordinary Yankees can use coconuts to change their lives, why can't we?

Din Duggan is an attorney working as a consultant with a global legal search firm. Email him at columns@gleanerjm.com or dinduggan@gmail.com, or view his past columns at facebook.com/dinduggan and twitter.com/YoungDuggan.