Turning corn into coffee? This traditional beverage, made and served by Filipino farmers for decades, is now the central theme in a new social enterprise started by Carmela “Cheenee” Otarra. Small farmers are often women with children who are busy with a multitude of tasks. Some even have to fight to keep their land. But through the work of a new social enterprise, Sumilao Agri-Enterprise, that’s all changing.
Can you tell us in a nutshell what Sumilao Agri-Enterprise is all about?
Sumilao Agri-Enterprise (SAE) is a social business enterprise between entrepreneurs and Filipino farmers that aims for the Three E’s: Empowerment, Environment, and Earnings. We want to empower farmers through entrepreneurship. We want to help conserve the environment by promoting organic farming. We also want to ensure income as a social enterprise.
Our pioneer partner consists of 8 women farmers from Sumilao, Bukidnon. They received land through the Agrarian Reform Program. They even walked 1,700 kilometers in 2007 to fight for their land, which they eventually got. They have an organic corn farm, so together with them, SAE decided to produce Organic Corn Coffee. Corn Coffee has been a traditional drink among these farmers who also come from the Higaonon tribe (an indigenous peoples group).
Our Production Facility is in Sumilao, Bukidnon, where the farmers live. We distribute our products to Bukidnon, to Cagayan de Oro, and to Metro Manila.
What environmental and social problems are you attempting to overcome through SAE?
1) Environmental Problem. We support organic farming because we believe that this is more sustainable for the earth. Lesser chemical fertilizers/pesticides leads to lesser soil erosion, a more sustainable soil productivity, and lesser contamination of fresh waterways and groundwater. In the long run, organic farming is still better for our environment and our people. Besides, these are the kinds of chemicals that we don’t want in our food.
2) Social Problem. In the Philippines, farmers have been a marginalized sector due to various factors. We want to address the issue of market access, wherein farmers find it difficult to access markets for their goods. Usually, the traders buy corn directly from them at unfair prices. We want to promote Fair Trade by paying these farmers the proper amount for their corn. We also promote Fair Trade by paying proper wages to these farmers who also roast the corn. In other words, we aim to provide them with opportunities to increase their financial capital.
How do you identify, develop, and market your agricultural products in a way that empowers local communities?
We have partnered with a few Sumilao farmers as a start. Before we decided on our product, we conducted workshops and interviews with the farmers to help identify potential agricultural products that we can develop and market. We remembered their traditional corn coffee drink, which they gave us when they were still marching in Manila. Upon agreeing that this would be the possible product, the entrepreneurs from Manila developed the product (taste, packaging, etc.) then marketed it to a target sector. Everything has been done with proper consultation and in a way that will truly maximize the farmers’ resources.
How did you raise funding for your social enterprise?
On March 2009, we won a Social Entrepreneurship Business Plan Writing Competition sponsored by the British Council and won PHP 20,000 (about USD 500). We used the money to test our product with the market. We sold about 400 packs in Christmas of 2009.
We joined another competition in September 2009 and won in February 2010. This time, it was sponsored by the BiD Network and the Philippine Business for Social Progress. We won PHP 100,000 (about USD 2200). We used the money for the start-up needs of our company like registration, production facility, and working capital.
I also personally invested about PHP 150,000 (about USD 3400) with the help of my parents.
What kinds of partnerships with NGOs, community organizations, government organizations, or private enterprises have you leveraged to make SAE happen?
There has been no “official” partnerships, but there have been several groups that have helped us in starting our business. We have received assistance from the Philippine Business for Social Progress, the British Council, Entrepreneur Magazine, the Ateneo School for Government – Youth Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship, Concept Machine, Bote Central, the Department of Agriculture – Region 10, the Department of Trade and Industry – Bukidnon Provincial Office and the Region 10 Office, and several other groups. We have approached these groups and they have also approached us to help us. These groups helped us with our first sales, our distribution outlets, our potential suppliers, and basically almost everything we need to start our business.
1) Culture. When working with farmers, you really have to compromise and try to adapt to each other’s cultures. They had practices that we had to change; and there were also practices that we retained in the group since we want to be sensitive to their culture. We try to work with their culture and set-up.
For instance, these farmers are not just farmers. They are also mothers. We don’t have a strict 8AM – 5PM working schedule. Instead, they schedule their own production dates and times, according to their busy schedules as mothers and women.
2) Distance. I live in the city, which is 1.5 hours away from Sumilao. Sometimes this distance can be a hindrance to how fast we would have wanted our work to be.
How will you ensure that your products remain green and sustainable as you scale up production?
These farmers have their organic farm, which is about 50 hectares wide. We want to work with NGOs that are already helping these farmers improve their organic farms, so that aside from transforming their corn to corn coffee, we can also ensure that they transform the waste into organic fertilizers for their farms.
Sumilao Corn Coffee is for the Good and Green Market – people who are health-conscious and socially responsible. The G2 Market emerged as part of an increasing global awareness on the need for going back to the basics in order to protect the depleting resources we have.
We sell our product through various distribution outlets – online, coffee shops, organic shops, and local pasalubong (souvenir) shops. Features in different magazines, websites, newspapers, and TV shows help a lot too in terms of generating sales.
What mistakes have you made along the way as a social entrepreneur?
1) Recording Finances. Sometimes I have not been very meticulous with recording certain details like small expenses. Later on, I tend to forget them. It’s hard not to have your own bookkeeper and accountant to record everything for you, but it’s part of starting up. You really want (and should want) to know how your money goes out and comes in. I’m not good with handling money, but I have learned a lot from my mistakes. It helps to plan, have a budget, and stick to your budget.
2) Packaging. At first, I really thought that the box packaging would look good because it looks natural and would stand out. However, I later discovered the problem that this would cause during delivery. Putting the foil inside the box, then transporting these products 1,700 km could destroy the appearance of the boxes! I never thought of this logistical issue. I have so many of these boxes, and we want to change this kind of packaging already because it is costly and inefficient. I take this as one of the best lessons I’ve learned so far.
1) Social entrepreneurship and green businesses are not for people with weak hearts and those who expect immediate returns. Starting up needs patience and hard work, coupled with really amazing and sensitive instinct. Sometimes you will really feel like giving up, but you have to be able to motivate yourself and remind yourself that this will eventually help more people and help the planet. Remind yourself EVERY SINGLE DAY that what you are doing is for a greater cause. You need it!
2) Plan. Plan. Plan. Planning really helps a lot, especially when you know the different actions to take when you reach a particular stage. It will also help you save a lot of money. Think about logistics, transportation, and other costs that you will need to incur.
3) Find Opportunities. Don’t just wait for the opportunity to knock at your doors. I had to research and read a lot to learn, mostly by myself. I researched for possible suppliers, for tips on how to make production more efficient, fair trade, and how to be more green. Social entrepreneurship and green businesses are a new breed so there’s a lot of work to do.