When I reach the crown of the coconut tree, it makes me very happy and content,” says Shweta Gaonkar, 25, who is being hailed as Goa’s first and only woman toddy tapper. This graduate in agriculture, who hails from South Goa’s Sanguem taluka, works as a farm manager on a private farm in the area. Gaonkar started climbing coconut trees only two years ago but has changed the gender stereotypes surrounding toddy-tapping.
The coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) is an integral part of Goa’s identity, culture and cuisine. In 2017, it was declared the state tree, along with the crocodile bark tree (Terminalia elliptica). Several professions revolve around the coconut tree; a primary and laborious one, toddy-tapping, has been dominated by men, known as rendeir.
According to the Toddy Tappers Association of Goa, the state has 200-odd toddy tappers. It’s a full-time job, says association president Remy Borges. “A toddy tapper has to work amidst strong winds and rain and that’s why it is considered one of the toughest professions,” he adds.“Traditionally in Goa there were three main professions—fishing, farming and toddy-tapping. Eventually, in the course of time, many from the toddy-tapping community started working on ships abroad, migrating to foreign lands.”
Gaonkar didn’t plan on a career in toddy-tapping. She was at Bengaluru’s Deejay Coconut Farm, researching coconut tissue culture and ways to multiply coconut seedlings from their inflorescence when the pandemic-triggered lockdown in 2020 forced her to return home to Goa. She began work at a private farm, in charge of the technical administration. Then her manager suggested she help guide the farm workers. This is when Gaonkar climbed her first tree with the help of a climbing machine she still uses.
Within two days, she was proficient enough to reach the crown of the tree—and discovered a whole new world. She started enjoying toddy-tapping. Today, she trains workers on the farm in toddy- tapping and also conducts workshops, on toddy-tapping and the use of a climbing machine, for farmers, private farm owners, and others. Recently, she trained 60 members of the Don Bosco Konkan Development Society, which has been working on outreach programmes for the marginalised.
Gaonkar says climbing comes naturally to her. “When I climbed a coconut tree for the first time, I didn’t feel scared. I was confident and comfortable. Also, I never faced any opposition because I am a woman. Right from my school days, I have been athletic, so perhaps it comes naturally to me,” she explains.
A tapper’s work involves collecting the sap, or neero, from the bud of the spadix of the coconut palm tree. Jaggery and unbleached sugar is made from it. And from the fermented neero, known as sur, vinegar is made and is further distilled to make coconut feni. The process involves selecting the right poiee, or spadix. “It should not be too young or too mature; it should be a little swollen at the base. The tapper then needs to bang it with a baton, after which it is tied up with a rope. The sap is collected on the third day.”
After the spadix is cut, a container is tied to it to collect the liquid. Instead of traditional earthenware called damonnem, Gaonkar uses specially designed boxes developed by the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute in Kasargod, Kerala, that prevent the fermentation of the neero in the initial period and slow the process later.
Gaonkar’s methods are a little different from traditional toddy tappers. For one, she uses a climbing machine. Two, she ascends two trees a day; traditional toddy tappers climb the same tree thrice a day—to collect toddy in the morning and evening and sharpen the spadix in the afternoon.
Miguel Braganza, a former agriculture officer and Gaonkar’s mentor, says: “Shweta’s driven to do things differently. She can hybridise coconuts, does toddy- tapping, and now even trains others. Her biggest USP is her degree in agriculture.”
Toddy-tapping is a task that requires precision, and it can fetch a decent amount of money. “If one has around 10 coconut trees, then one can easily earn up to ₹3.35 lakh per year, provided one has a good hybrid variety of the tree or the best ones, like the Benaulim variety. It is a faster way of making money compared to harvesting coconuts, as it takes around 365 days for the fruit to develop and mature,” says Gaonkar.
One spathe of the tree gives around 15 litres of toddy in 30 days, she explains. One can earn ₹1,800 from one spathe; the average cost of toddy is ₹120 per litre. So, a farmer can earn ₹18,000 per month from 10 trees and thus ₹2.16 lakh in a year. And if the tree is a hybrid or Benaulim variety, one can get two, even three, spathes. Retail rates of toddy can range from ₹120-200 per litre, rising during village feasts since the toddy is used to make the traditional delicacy sannas and toddy vinegar, an essential ingredient for sorpotel.
Connected to trees
Gaonkar took to the field early. She joined Goa’s first agriculture college—the Don Bosco College of Agriculture, Sulcorna—after her higher secondary exam. After graduation, she enrolled at the Deejay Coconut Farm. “I have always felt connected to coconut trees right from my childhood,” says Gaonkar, whose father is involved in coconut farming and in managing cashew tree plantations.
Today, she’s a toddy tapper at a time when some of the traditional workers are quitting in favour of more secure jobs. Gaonkar, however, is sold on toddy-tapping. It’s certainly better than just having coconut farms for the fruit, she says. On average, estimates suggest one can get a net income of ₹10,000 per year from 10 trees by harvesting mature coconuts. Toddy offers more.
Braganza believes toddy-tapping has a bright future. “Market research has proven that slightly fermented toddy has acceptability as a chilled bubbly. It can replace champagne if bottled and distributed chilled. It is sold at ₹190 per litre instead of the normal ₹100-120 per litre.”
For Gaonkar, this is just the beginning. She hopes to train young women and increase awareness about a profession that is now based on new tools, skills and marketing—keeping alive Goa’s tryst with the coconut tree.
Arti Das is a Goa-based journalist.