Grassroots & Governance

It’s about time. At long last, the government has embarked on a bold initiative to address our inability to produce enough rice for our own needs. The plan to work with the government of Papua New Guinea to cultivate rice and transfer rice production technology is promising. Papua New Guinea is reported to have fertile soil and lots of wetlands to make rice production effective, since it is expected to be more cost efficient. So, we are finally recognizing that despite our decades of obsession with attaining self-sufficiency in rice, we can’t seem to make it work. There is of course, climate change, with unpredictable weather conditions, exceedingly high price of fertilizers, our aging farmers (average age now estimated at 60 years) and lack of interest of the younger generations in grueling farm work, and, of course, the usual widespread corruption all the way down to agricultural field technicians.
Developing Papua New Guinea as an alternative source of rice makes sense in order to ensure that we have other options outside of Vietnam and Thailand which are rethinking their rice businesses toward higher-end varieties, branding, etc. We may have to pay higher prices for our rice imports if we don’t cultivate alternatives.
Yes, we can produce abundant rice given the right environmental conditions. But can the government actually produce it efficiently? Perhaps, if it partners with technical resources such as the University of the Philippines in Los Baños which supplies the scientists working at the nearby International Rice Research Institute. And if private business runs the show. I am skeptical about our chances of success if the government, which cannot maintain railways, or run government corporations without running them down to bankruptcy, is the way to go.
Vietnam’s An Giang Plant Protection Company, the successful Joint Venture of a private businessman who mobilized a multiple-stakeholder approach work in an “everybody wins” formula, is worth studying. Government provided land for research and start-up production, the agricultural school provided technical support, and European suppliers of technical inputs and equipment (chemicals, seeds, fertilizers, combine harvesters, etc.) at innovative and conciliatory pricing synergized to make this joint venture succeed in producing and selling rice to domestic and export markets (all the way to Africa).
An Giang introduced several innovations that are worth emulating: the JV did not own the land, the small farmers retained ownership. The Joint Venture supplied the seeds, chemicals, fertilizers at reasonable rates, payable upon sale of the rice outputs at current market prices. An Giang also provided rice milling and storage facilities, also payable upon sale of the rice outputs. Very significantly, An Giang also hired and provided agricultural field technicians and trained them in community relations so that they could become “farmers’ friends” over and beyond being technical advisers.
Proof of An Giang’s success was the decision of a Swiss-based investment firm to invest in minority equity shares in the JV worth USD90 million. This is incredible given that Vietnam is a communist-run government.
thinking conversation brainstorming
The Department of Agriculture could benefit from organized consultations with academe, private entrepreneurs, and the government of Papua New Guinea toward formulating an approach that over the long term can result in an “everybody happy,” sustainable venture that can meet the multiple stakeholders’ expectations.
Perhaps the Secretary of Agriculture should also look into how our archipelagic nation, ironically surrounded by seas, can raise the productivity of our fisheries industry so that it becomes a prosperous contributor to our economy. Fisheries has been lagging behind manufacturing and services for many years. Perhaps the only time it became a significant contributor to our economic growth was when Malcolm Sarmiento was Director of the Bureau of Fisheries. Sarmiento (where is he now?) passionately pushed for acquaculture and marine sanctuaries to raise our productivity in fisheries. He also promoted sardine processing into bottled products in his home town of Dipolog. And look where we are now with even high end gourmet tuyo, branded, packaged, smoked tinapa, and other new gourmet products in our supermarkets.
There has been too much vertical thinking in our government approaches. Doing the same things over and over again, trying to just do the same things a little better each year. Obviously, we need more than that.
There is enough disruptive technology around the world to force us to wake up and anticipate the trends if we are to survive and hopefully, thrive.
I read recently that the Department of Science and Technology has been tasked with monitoring developments in information and communications technology. There seem to be threats to our Call Centers jobs over the long term with awesome developments in artificial intelligence, notably voice recognition. I hope Filipino IT experts such as Dado Banatao are being consulted on these.
The creative industries (film, fashion design, art, music, graphic arts, IT innovations) seem to be getting organized toward becoming a major force in our economic progress. Creative arts is something we seem to be naturally good at; and we should make serious efforts to develop these in our people, especially the youth. There are already too many lawyers, lawyering still considered a glamorous profession; and other career paths should be promoted instead.
In all of these enterprises, we need bold lateral, not vertical thinking.
Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and an independent development management consultant.