Connecting the dots in agriculture: Supply, ship, sustain

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By Maya M. Padillo, Correspondent
and Marifi S. Jara, Mindanao Bureau Chief

IN the imagined post-pandemic Philippines, there would be no shortage of affordable food and Filipino farmers and fisherfolk would not be poor.

“Our goal is a country that is food-secure and resilient, where farmers and fisherfolk are empowered and enjoy better incomes and a higher standard of living,” Agriculture Secretary William D. Dar said during the Sept. 9 virtual launch of the World Bank report Transforming Philippine Agriculture: During COVID-19 and Beyond.

Not that the dream suddenly cropped up during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis.

Mr. Dar, when he assumed office in August 2019, launched what he branded as “new thinking” for the agriculture sector, a nine-point agenda which signaled a policy adjustment that looks beyond the staple and politically-charged commodity, rice.

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That new thinking and its goals have been made more urgent by the disruptions stemming from the pandemic, bringing to the fore the industry’s inherent strength as a source of essential goods as well as its many weaknesses.

“The gaps within the commodity value chains must be addressed in order for (agriculture) to be efficient and an effective catalyst for inclusive growth,” Antonio S. Peralta, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines-Southern Mindanao Business Council, said in an e-mail interview.

 On the supply side, agricultural output grew at a rate of 1.6% and 1.2% in the second and third quarters, respectively, bucking the downward trend in other sectors and the economy’s overall economic performance.

In the southern islands of Mindanao, where about 43% of the country’s food output and more than 30% of agricultural exports come from, the sector also stayed positive at 0.1% in the second quarter while the industry and services sectors contracted 6.9% and 9.7%.

 “Agriculture grew point one percent, very small and minimal perhaps, yet, we can consider that agriculture is a tiny spark in the light of this otherwise dark reality that we face because of the pandemic,” Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA) Deputy Executive Director Romeo M. Montenegro said in an online briefing in early September.

MAKING CHAINS
But while supply proved buoyant, pain points in marketing and distribution became pronounced even after the national policy on the unhampered movement of food products across local borders was made abundantly clear.

Remedy came from various quarters — national and local government agencies, big business, social enterprises, and individual entrepreneurs — but the form it took followed a consistent theme: setting up relatively small chains directly linking farmers to buyers. 

The Department of Agriculture (DA) launched its Kadiwa ni Ani at Kita, which came on wheels and came in pop-up shop format. Farmers were given venues to sell their harvest, such as in barangay sports centers, open spaces in major shopping malls, and even gas stations owned by San Miguel Corp.’s (SMC) unit Petron Corp.

MinDA also restaged and expanded its Tienda program, bringing Mindanao goods to the cities of Manila and Baguio, and at the same time, facilitating regular supply deals.

Well-established farmer cooperatives also ventured online to find new markets.

A unique organization, Rural Rising Philippines (RURI), also found impetus from the crisis, with Baguio-based couple Andie and Ace Estrada starting it as a simple drive to help Cordillera farmers and retailers who found themselves giving away or throwing out vegetables for lack of buyers.

Their stopgap initiative attracted conglomerate SMC, which provided them with an unused property along Maayusin Street in UP Village, Quezon City. What initially served as a much-needed warehouse has now been spruced up into the RuRi House, a hub for a growing community of farmers from various parts of Luzon, organic packaging makers, resellers, and consumers.

“It’s the power of the collective,” Mr. Estrada said during the Nov. 19 episode of the ongoing webinar series hosted by the Climate Change Commission and House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Loren B. Legarda.

When asked by Ms. Legarda what government can do or provide to help them as they continue to expand the RuRi movement, Ms. Estrada, in earnest, gave a full menu: “Greenhouse farming, storage, logistics, and food processing.”

Rural Rising PH’s wishlist echoes recommendations continually being lobbied for by agriculture stakeholders across the country, especially in Mindanao.

“This is really the best time to rethink, reimagine, repurpose, or invest in the agricultural sector,” Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry Area Vice-President for Mindanao Ma. Teresa R. Alegrio said.

She made the proposals in a resolution sent to the economic managers as part of this year’s Mindanao Business Conference output. The chamber emphasized the need not just for funding commitment from government, but technological and logistical support to move the industry a step up the global value chain through agro-processing.

“Agriculture is the low-hanging fruit” now for development and investment, Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry President John Carlo B. Tria said, noting possibilities in high-value crops such as cacao and coffee and, literally, fruit.

“The pandemic gives us an opening to really look… to give opportunities to our farm sector so that we are not simply going to be dependent on one way of doing business,” he said.

Felicitas B. Pantoja, co-founder and president of social enterprise Coffee for Peace, in an email interview said there is much room for growth within the Philippine market itself.

“We heavily rely on imported coffee for our drinks… This time (of the pandemic) should give our farmers the stage to shine and be proud of our local product,” she said.

“Our farmers are as important as our (health) frontliners,” added Ms. Pantoja, who is one of the three recipients of the 2020 Oslo Business for Peace Award, which has been likened to a Nobel Prize for business.

Ms. Pantoja said the award, while honoring her work as an individual entrepreneur, also gives recognition to Coffee for Peace as an example of a sustainable business “that can contribute to our society by making the farmers rich.”

But more than the monetary gain, she said it is about elevating them from being just suppliers in the agricultural chain and helping them become “confident as farmers.”

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