“All my products go to Whole Foods,” she says with all humility and continues, “but under their brand name.”
Lalaine Abonal is a real coconut entrepreneur having developed a whole line of products using coconut sap, virgin coconut oil and local cacao, vinegar and a host of others. Her brand is Coconut Republic, but in the USA you may find these great products under house brands of specialty food stores such as Whole Foods.
She has an ongoing research and development team in her facility in Camarines Sur, along with designers and specialists who have come up with coconut sugar in various gradiated shades from oyster white to tan to beige. She has her certificates from international third party certifiers, Halal, Parve and other known certifying agencies.
On the other side of the pavilion, we have humble Imelda of Kalinga. She has her Unoy rice, her Mutit coffee, her peanuts sans certifications or fancy packaging. When asked why she did not bother about certifications, she claims, “It is just so expensive I cannot afford it!”
This was the scene at the recent Biofach Japan, a natural and organic exposition where the Philippine pavilion was showcased with about 12 exhibitors displaying coconut sugar, to roselle tea (hibiscus) to green coffee beans.
Coconut sugar is today’s Nata de Coco of the ‘80s. Time was when Nata de Coco was the Philippine food trend champion until another country took it international and we somehow lost its preeminence in our export market. This time, everyone is selling coconut sugar. Everyone is selling Virgin Coconut oil. Everything coconut-based.
Lalaine and Imelda are at two opposite sides of a spectrum. One who does not even have local markets for her coconut value-added products because she exports everything, and one who will find it challenging to even export to specialty or niche markets if she does not prepare for it.
The difference is in mindset. Attitude. Exposure to global trends. I gently asked Imelda to check out the meals being served in the Biofach Restaurant in bento boxes. There were purple rice, brown rice and all the rice we could possibly export to Japan—served with Japanese dishes. She dismissed what she saw as “not pure, not like her rice.” I rest my case. The teacher will come when the student is ready.
Lalaine Abonal and another coconut sugar couple, Terry and Joy Taray of Treelife gave me a lot of hope that we have products ready for the export market, most especially niche products like organic-certified products in nice packaging with translations in different languages for German, Japanese and Korean markets.
Ruby Cruz of Daily Apple based in Bago City, Negros Occidental displayed a new product, Roselle or Hibiscus dried fruits, jams and drinks. She is another exporter ready for the market. She attended Anuga, and has ECOcert certification for her organic products.
If we as the Philippines cannot compete in volume and price with the likes of Thailand or Vietnam, we can compete in specialty markets. And this is what Lalaine, Terry and Joy, and Ruby understand. I just wish other farmer-entrepreneurs would take inspiration from these enlightened business people.
The work of Agriculture Undersecretary Berna Romulo-Puyat in showcasing small organic producers is admirable. She and Director Dax Gazmin of DA-AMAS have been pushing small producers to join these expos and fairs to gain market knowledge about what the global consumer wants.
The next big hurdle is certification by a third party like OCCP, ECOcert, IMO and even SGS. Though DA reimburses the certification fee, still there is work to do.
Farmers need to see the same mission if we are to compete in this global stage.
They have to tell the story, be sustainable and open their eyes to Thailand and Vietnam. The state support is already here in terms of exposure and subsidized expenses. All we need to do is do our homework as producers or enablers.
We need to brief our artisans and heirloom producers on export requirements. We need to dress them up for the world. We have a lot of products with promise. But there is more work to do. And the state cannot do everything.
Our congratulations to our innovative exporters like Lalaine, Terry and Joy and Ruby. May you serve as inspiration to the other organic and sustainable farmers.
And get everyone ready for the world.
* * *
Chit Juan is a founder and owner of ECHOStore sustainable lifestyle, ECHOmarket sustainable farms and ECHOcafe in Serendra , Podium and Centris QC malls. She also is President of the Women’s Business Council of the Philippines and President of the Philippine Coffee Board Inc., two non-profits close to her heart. She often speaks to corporates, youth and NGOs on social entrepreneurship, women empowerment, and coffee. You can follow her on twitter.com/chitjuan or find her on facebook:Pacita “Chit” Juan. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org