Can 20-something green entrepreneurs like those behind Organika Foods help to transform the Filipino organic foods market? Trechelle Lyn Ras and Kara Jess Rondina (seen here, left to right) think they can.
In the Philippine agriculture context, mismanagement of rich natural resources has resulted in an excess of imports from its neighbor countries. Consequently, 32 Million of the poorest Filipinos are farmers and agriculture-dependent communities.
Fortunately, government agencies like the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), Department of Agriculture (DA), Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and have already initiated basic community organization and product development assistance to agri-business communities. However, these producers lack the capacity and assistance to compete both locally and globally because of limited access to information and market opportunities.
Last June 2009, McKinsey & Co. and Ateneo de Manila University came together to set up a class of 15 hand-picked students specially designed to develop business models for Gawad Kalinga, a not-for-profit organization that started off with providing houses for the poor. Now, the program is moving into its second phase called “social artistry” to achieve sustainability.
We talked to Trechelle and Kara about how their green entrepreneur journey with Organika Foods, a business that has sprouted out of the Gawad Kalinga program, is contributing to solutions to the challenges faced by Filipino farmers today.
The company Gabay Kabuhayan (translated “Livelihood Guide”) Marketing & Distribution (GKMD) is a social enterprise that was borne as a response to the gap between Agri-Business Communities (ABCs) who lack the opportunity to reach the market and consumers who have limited access to quality agri-based products.
Our mission is to be the most socially effective market platform for ABCs and to be the channel of resources to serve their organizational and operational needs.
We are driven by the goals to:
1. Help ABCs become sustainable, which translates to direct empowerment and improvement in their members’ quality of life;
2. Boost the Philippine agriculture industry to make it globally significant; and
3. Make local, natural products more available in the local and global market.
Under GKMD, the first line is Organika Foods which offers quality organic products that are ecologically sustainable, locally produced, and socially-responsible.
We identified community products that utilize natural resources through chemical-free processing, preventing hazards to communities and the environment, which at the same time offer consumers good health, good food, and a great life.
We are currently focusing marketing efforts on coconut-based products – which include sugar, vinegar, syrup and culinary oil – to serve retailers (specialty stores, alternative clinics, wellness centers) and food service establishments (restaurants, hotels, hospitals, caterers) both local and abroad to serve the growing consumer demand for healthy, delicious sustainable food.
How does your business benefit local communities in the Philippines?
Our goal is to double 222 farmers’ income in 3 years.
Business accelerator. We aim to grow and dignify ABCs by addressing their marketing and distribution needs. This will not only keep their economic activities stable but will potentially increase capacity and income per unit of production.
Resource innovator. We will pull in specialized capacity building institutions that can assist in business and human capital development – which includes investments in facilities and training, community organization, values formation, conflict resolution and dignity restoration.
Do your products make use of coconut waste products? If so, what would happen to the waste if people were not to use it for Organika’s products?
Practically every part of the “tree of life” is useful. Farmers have been tapping it to sell roofing for nipa hut, brooms, lumbers, medicinal purposes from the roots, vinegar, wine (tuba), and copra as raw material for oil. These items have low value thereby a day of climbing trees only get farmers so far.
It has only been in recent years that high-value products such as virgin coconut oil (VCO, which is an excellent food supplement) and its sweetening properties have been discovered (in the form of granules and syrup, which are recommended for diabetics and its prevention).
This sweetener has been cited by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as the most sustainable in the world. The tree can be tapped for 70 years while it helps restore ecosystems and damaged soils, to name a few ecological benefits.
We believe that greater efficiency and effectiveness can be achieved through focused executions. Every organization specializes on a unique strength, be it in organizing communities, resolving conflict, providing capital or marketing.
The collaborative ecosystem presented below is based on a recent study conducted by Smart Telecommunications through the Tipid Sulit Fund (composed of a cross-functional team with GK representatives).
This approach allows the entities to coordinate their efforts and activities in order to achieve greater impact. We need not reinvent systems; we need only to form the right partnerships and fit where there is an unmet need.
What kinds of connections did you need to make with local Philippines communities in order to get the project up and running?
After months of looking for the right product and partner, we have fortunately met a business that helps coconut farmers in production. It met our standards for high quality although the community is not yet organized and no other human development assistance is in place. We thought that it was perfect for Organika to come in and pull in the other necessary resource partners.
Before fully engaging the community, we decided to test the market first to avoid burning hopes in case the plan doesn’t prove to be profitable and attractive to the other capacity-builders. By far, our sales activities and initial partnership discussions promise great value for the farmers’ business and human capital development.
We are still in the process of exploring the deal with our production partner. We are pushing through with working with him because he would step up to our challenge to go the extra mile to make these farmers’ lives better. Late November, we are going to visit the farms in North Cotabato to ensure that they will be directly benefited from the business operations and to listen to what they really need. We go forth with the desire to learn and build friendships.
What unique challenges do you face trying to establish a business that’s based in the global south but marketing in North America and other western countries?
Our production arm is already exporting to Australia, Canada and a few Asian countries. The friendships that Gawad Kalinga, our network of support and resources, has made with the US and Europe paves the way for us to be known as GK’s partner in uplifting people lives through good health and good food.
Currently, Organika is self-funded by the founders, but we don’t limit ourselves with our limited pockets. We join relevant business plan competitions that not only open us up to funding but also allow us to improve our plan and build a relevant network. We are open to investors but we are extra careful in selecting the people who primarily want to give back, to mentor, and not to merely maximize profits.
One thing we did find out was that, contrary to common notion, funding is actually not the main problem when starting an enterprise. There are countless institutions that look for ventures they can fund, the question always is, the commitment and the passion of the entrepreneurs to keep going and the willingness to change. Because once you’re ready, the resources just keep pouring in.
What do you do to promote Organika’s organic foods? Did you employ social media to market your green business?
It really helps to talk to as many people as possible. Talk about your story, the story of partnerships formed and the story of your proposed solution. Wear your passion every day, at all times. Once when I was on the train station on the way home, a lady asked about what I had in my basket. Then and there, I saw myself arousing the interest of a group of ladies in the most unexpected place.
Knowing who your customers are and what they need is very crucial in marketing. The GK network of supporters and the market of a fellow social enterprise, human nature, have paved the way for us. The customers are concerned about their health yet they are also interested in delicious foods. We make sure that we are competitive at those respects. But it is when we have engaged them in our real stories that we get their loyalty.
Social media, like Facebook, has played a big role in creating and maintaining relationships with customers. It plays a very promising role in getting more establishments to join in as we promise a bigger market base for them. We try to get in touch with the latest innovations in social media and try to look for ways on how to integrate it to our promotional strategy. Some of the social media and internet tools that we really find helpful are Facebook ads, cross-advertising with partner bloggers, and Google Analytics and of course, informational resources websites. Social media has also helped a lot especially in terms of widening the network of GKMD. Through it, we’ve met people who share the same vision while some even lend a hand and recommended GreenMarketing.TV to us! Social media is one of the most powerful, most available, and most affordable tools for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Are there any mistakes that you’ve made on this entrepreneurial journey that you would like to share with other green entrepreneurs?
There are mistakes that we might have committed more than once to learn by heart. What we have here now are things we have to constantly remind ourselves of, too.
Entrepreneurs are special in such a way that they emerge out of a need – a need which ought to be addressed because they affect human lives or the environment. It comes from people and actual experiences, not mere theories. As much as we are inclined to think that we know solutions to world problems, unless we understand the problem from the ground, there isn’t much that we can offer to do.
In enterprises, especially start-ups, never think that you have a whole army of employees to carry out your plans. It’s you who will do most of the dirty work in the beginning. First because of limited resources that need to be wisely spent; and second, it is important to know every detail of the value chain.
As much as you are building our network of relevant names, constantly remind yourself that you are not dealing with “resources” but human souls. Know how you can be of service at all times and be honest in what you need. Know someone not for his benefit, but by how much you are willing to grow, extend yourself, and truly listen. Never arrogantly brush off the “insignificant” advice you get from people you don’t expect to know everything. Looking back, these were the things we fell short of.
Dream BIG. And never forget it.
We wake up everyday unknowing of what might happen tomorrow or a month from now. Getting used to this high level of uncertainty is both frightening and exciting. But having a clear vision of your big dream, of what you want to end up with keeps you going through tough times of self-doubt and unclear visions of what’s ahead. It gets you waking up every morning with that vision of sunshine and Jason Mraz’ singing as the soundtrack.
Setting up a business is fun! We feel like playing and we can be the Lady Gagas in the social entrepreneurship world. I say that we are playing – not because it is easy but because this is where our heart is, this makes us alive. But like anything done with risk and commitment in life, it is a BIG challenge emotionally, socially, professionally, financially, mentally, and esp. spiritually.
When you’re a couple of 20 year olds, fresh off from college, you really have to be open to the fact that you sure can’t do it alone given your limited experience and resources. But when you look at us, you are looking at one wide support system and that is our families, friends and the Gawad Kalinga network. We have mentors in all respect, but we HIGHLY RECOMMEND looking for the right ones. When they are around, things seem to be easier. You get the feeling that you know exactly what to do and that you’re truly ready to conquer the world after ending a conversation with them. You see immediate results – they make calls, open up their network to you, schedule a workshop or fund a trip, or even seal a sales deal.
Second, CONNECT. Talk to people – you don’t know who your next customer will be, or someone who is close to the doctor or chef you’re looking for, or someone might volunteer to endorse you! Talk about the challenges, tell your story, talk about what you want to become and what you are looking for. People are idea banks, they need to be tapped.
IDEAS take time to RIPEN, even PARTNERSHIPS. Some might only bear fruit or respond after 6 months! Be patient in waiting and respect proper timing. Things don’t happen all at once.
As much as people say “Business is business,” we believe that “Business is Friendship.” As much as possible, work with people who have the same foundations as you, a core belief that makes them get up from bed every morning. Ride this wild adventure with someone who share the vision and the love, a person you will never let down and you know will never betray you. Good foundations produce good fruits.
And most importantly, be there! Give your crispy “Yes!” to this opportunity-of-a-lifetime. Give it your all and be part of the solution. Don’t wait for people to help you and give what you think you need. Just keep doing what you can do and keep repeating what you’re good at and what you enjoy. Though be sure that there are measurable RESULTS!
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