New ideas: helping Philippine farmers thrive

Volunteer Mandy Borja is putting his vast experience in agriculture, engineering and development to work in his home country. The Filipino- Canadian, a retired environmental and agricultural engineer, is volunteering as a knowledge management advisor with Trias-Southeast Asia.  

A former CEDA consultant, agriculturist for the Philippine government and project manager for the Worldwide Fund for Nature-Philippines, the 62-year-old’s decades of experience in the field made him a perfect fit to assist farming organizations with updating and streamlining their practices.  

“It’s like our minds are being opened to new ideas,” said Gerald Prila, internal control system inspector at Pecuaria Development Coop-erative Inc. PDCI, located in the municipality of Bula in Camarines Sur, Philippines, has more than 400 farmers who grow organic rice and muscovado sugarcane.  

Jocelyn Chaba, 64, one of the original members of the cooperative.

Officially established in 1991 during the country’s agrarian land reforms, and following conflicts between competing farm groups, 426 households received 1.7 hectares each for farming and an additional 600 square-metres where they could build a home.  

Jocelyn Chaba, 64, is one of the original members of the cooperative and remembers the move to organic farming was difficult.  

“Of course it was hard,” said the mother of 10. “We hadn’t tried it before. So we just tried and tried. And then later on, as we became familiar with the process, it became easier. You learn.”  

According to a 2017 report by the International Land Coalition, the cooperative “has emerged as a driving force for innovation in the rural development sector and the stable demand for its products brings increasing income to producers.”  

For Jocelyn, organic farming produces sweeter rice and a larger yield, while also cutting her farming expenses and freeing up more time to spend on other pursuits.  

“We no longer need to buy fertilizer,” she said. “We no longer need to cut the grass before we can plant.”  

With the money she saved, Jocelyn was able to purchase items “here and there” for her family and use her free time to plant sweet potato, bananas and vegetables.  

A simple dream  

Mandy, who lives in Toronto, worked with Pecuaria’s farmers to document their techniques. “Starting from their planting, on how they take care of it, how they dry their rice grains and then on how they plan to market it,” he said. “I was able to see what they had and what I could still improve on.”  

With the farmers’ help, Mandy created an instruction guide to improve their systems, increase production and offer their produce to a wider audience.  

The assistance has been extremely helpful and the cooperative is now looking at how it can develop further and help its farmers grow other specialized projects, Gerald said.  

For Mandy, it’s all about ensuring the right processes are in place to help farmers succeed and thrive.  

“I can see changes with the farmers’ attitudes, their concern for environmental protection and sustainability of agriculture production. They are now very interested to learn and use the appropriate technologies,” he said.  

“I just have a simple dream for them—that they can sustain their farming operations and improve their technology, so their way of living can improve as well.” 

Supporting Ongoing Typhoon Haiyan Recovery in the Philippines

Young children in Philippines

Alan Orais was home with his family when Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippines in 2013, leaving entire communities devastated in its wake. At the time, he vowed that if his life was spared, he would dedicate his time to helping his community in whatever way he could. His home and all of his belongings —except for an old vehicle—were destroyed, but he and his family survived.

Five years later, Alan continues to fulfil the promise he made. To help local farmers rebuild, he works with them teaching them how to grow peanuts, providing them with seeds and helping them get the equipment they need. He also offers advice on how to plan their harvests and how to budget their money so that they can be successful.

He doesn’t stop there. He purchases their peanut crops at a fair rate, even though the peanuts could be purchased at a lower cost when imported from nearby China. He turns their crops into peanut butter, packages it and sells it locally.

To help him expand his business, and thereby increase his support to local farmers, Alan enrolled in an entrepreneurship course with the government to help small businesses. Here, he met Canadian Cuso International volunteers Marshall Bell and Tiffany Tong who recently returned from volunteering in the Philippines helping microentrepreneurs grow their businesses.

“His current label, while fine on its own, didn’t showcase his unique value proposition of producing field-to-jar peanut butter. We spent a lot of time understanding his passion for helping farmers and wanting to make them the focus, and ultimately we wanted to help him capture that in his branding,” says Tiffany.

“We prototyped a few brand concepts for him to consider and explained that the three concepts resonate with different audiences. He chose one called Farmer’s Harvest which is a perfect fit for his mission-driven company. We created new labels for him, a brand identity guide, key messages, and helped him revise his mission and vision statements.”

Already, Alan has secured new contracts selling his peanut butter jars with the new branding. “It was fulfilling to see the final product,” Tiffany said.

Tiffany and Marshall, a couple based in Charlottetown, P.E.I., had been volunteering in the Philippines since September 2017; their Cuso International placement ended at the end of April 2018. The placement had been an opportunity for the couple to share their professional expertise to help with the ongoing typhoon recovery. Both have experience in the food industry previously working at a food product development centre.

“The type of assistance these microenterprises need is quite different than most of the Canadian companies I worked with. Most of these businesses produce out of their homes so the things they need to work on are quite basic,” Marshall said. “Each business is unique, but many have similar challenges, for example: wanting to extend the shelf life of their products, needing more appropriate packaging and improved labelling.”

Providing this mentorship, Marshall says, is “an opportunity to pay forward all the education and experience we have been blessed with wrapped up in a life-changing adventure.”

The couple supported 30 businesses, including the peanut butter company. Other small business owners manufacture food, such as banana chips, coconut sap wine and baked goods; one produces water buffalo milk; others weave handicrafts; and one is very different than the others—a funeral home owner.

“We meet with them one-on-one to understand where they are at and what their challenges are,” Tiffany said. “I tell them we didn’t bring our pixie dust, so we are going to have to work through things together to make changes happen.”

While the placement has been challenging, Tiffany says it has also been a real eye-opener. “Being in a totally different culture (which is exactly what we wanted) is a constant reminder that everything we know to be true and right is just all relative,” she said. “I’ve learned a ton about life, work and myself, and it’s been very rewarding and productive to disconnect with the regular flow of life and reconnect with myself. It’s been a huge step in my journey in figuring out how I’m going to make a difference in this world.”

Hear Tiffany speaking of their experience in the Philippines on CBC Radio in PEI.

Please consider donating today to help send more volunteers like Tiffany and Marshall where they are needed most to make a real difference.

A Farm That’s Changing Lives

students in the farm’s Social Entrepreneurship Experiential Development Program

Nestled within the mountainous landscape of Bulacan, a central province in the Philippines, there is a place they call the “Enchanted Farm”. It’s not magical in the traditional sense—no whimsical creatures or talking trees. Rather, its magic lies in its ability to transform the lives of families living in extreme poverty.

The farm is run by Gawad Kalinga, one of the Philippines’ most respected development organizations, and a partner of Cuso International. Traditionally their work involved building houses for the poor, but recently their focus shifted to the farm, where Shona Taner, a two-time Cuso International volunteer, is changing lives.

“I used to help company owners make more money but I decided I wanted to help poor people make money,” Shona said.

Often referred to as “The Silicon Valley of Social Enterprise”, the farm has a unique model that focuses on a “triple bottom line”: enhancing profits, people and the planet. Fifty families who were once homeless now live in homes on the farm, and the products they create are sold to invest back into the farm.

Shona has been mentoring students in the farm’s Social Entrepreneurship Experiential Development Program. She has also been helping farmers improve their processes and skills so they can increase profits and become more financially secure.

“I am a strong believer and advocate of social entrepreneurship, and of education towards it, as key drivers to overcome poverty,” Shona said.

Please consider donating today to help send more volunteers like Shona where they are needed most to make a real difference.

Filipino Canadian’s Volunteer Advises Her Community: You Can Do It!

Angie Marquez was 14 when she came to Canada from Marikina, a district of Manila in the Philippines. “I was heartbroken when I left,” she remembers. “I cried for days.” Leaving her friends behind wasn’t easy. It’s the kind of experience you never forget. She, her parents and two elder brothers followed her six older siblings to Canada four decades ago, landing in Mississauga, Ontario.

Her parents didn’t deal well with the Canadian winters returning a year later, so she moved in her with an older brother in Stratford. “It was like two culture shocks,” she said. “I was one of only couple visible minorities in the school and I had to deal with a lot of discrimination at the school.”

After her parents returned to the Philippines, they stayed and she went back regularly for visits, but she hasn’t been back since 2010 after he mother passed away. Now, she’s about to return to Manila, but in a totally different way. As a Cuso International volunteer she’ll be working as a Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor for Trias, a Belgian organization working with groups like small-scale farmers to help them improve their business practices.

In Canada she works as a consultant with non-profits helping them in different areas such as fundraising and building their capacity. Realizing that she could do her work anywhere she followed her curiosity to work in international development to Cuso International. Interestingly volunteering in the Philippines wasn’t her first choice, but when she saw Cuso International had opportunities to volunteer in her home country she saw the opportunity. “I wanted to give back,” she says. “I’m excited to go back home. I’m excited about the work.” She understands that working in the Philippines will be different than Canada and that there might be higher expectations to understand the work environment on her than a non-Filipino.

Days before her departure, Angie is getting the last things done before one year in Manila. As she gets closer to the day she been speaking to members of her community about what she’s about to undertake and many are impressed. “There are so many professional Filipino Canadians with a hunger to give back (to the Philippines),” she says. “When I tell them about it they say, “Wow, that’s so nice. I wish I could, too.’ And I tell them, ‘You can do it!’”

Learn more about volunteering with Cuso International.