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Agriculture - 2021-05-01

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FORMER CAFE OWNER’S PANDEMIC ENDEAVOR LINKS BENGUET FARMERS TO MANILA CUSTOMERS

Pandemic Pivot

Having to close down her cafe because of the pandemic led a Benguet native to start ferrying vegetables from her hometown to customers in Manila. Her endeavor has also inspired some youths to stay in agriculture. THE GLOBAL PANDEMIC has forced life to a near standstill. Many businesses have been forced to close or switch to a more viable source of income. For Wilma T. Gaspili, affectionately known as "Ate Wammie" to friends, the temporary closure of her coffee shop Igorot’s Charm Cafe in Baguio City led to a business that helps local farmers as well. Ani.ph is an endeavor that brings Baguio produce straight from farms to households in Manila and other areas the farmers are not able to reach because of travel restrictions. HELPING FARMERS REACH HOUSEHOLDS “The business started in the midst of the pandemic. My business Igorot’s Charm Cafe wasn't operating [and] most of our produce went to waste as there were travel restrictions. We had to think of a way to send the produce to the lowland areas and help our fellow farmers sell their produce at the same time. We started contacting a few friends we know, set-up a Facebook page, and promoted our products online. Our team's advocacy is to bring fresh produce from Benguet to our friends in the lowland cities, while helping farmers receive their fair share in harvest,” Gaspili says. “As we know, most of our farmers sell their produce at a very cheap price, we try our best to help them by giving them a fair pay, and helping them deliver their products to the cities they cannot reach due to the travel restrictions. On the other hand, our friends from the cities were able to get freshly harvested produce without the need to go to crowded markets—which is risky, given that there is a pandemic. It was a win for both farmers and consumers.” The ‘team’ actually includes the kids of Gaspili’s farmer contacts whose ages range from 17-23. “They grew up farming and they have their own small farm so they earn money and they... are happy working in the farm,” she says. “When the pandemic came, I witnessed how sad they were because [even though it was] time to harvest their cabbage and broccoli, but because we can't travel [due to] tough protocols, they [had to] give away their harvest.” To help them, Gaspili messaged her friends in Manila and asked if they wanted to order vegetables from Benguet. A few said yes, and even offered to become pickup points for other customers in the area. “Eventually, we got more clients and that motivated [the farmers] to do more farming. Now they are harvesting more broccoli and we are the ones to deliver to Manila and they get their fair share.” She herself comes from a family of farmers and maintains close contact with many farmers in the area. “I was exposed to farming at an early age, because this was our family's source of living,” she says. Her experience growing up, plus her personal relationships with nearby farmers and their collective desire to uplift the agriculture industry and secure good lives for its players, is part of why there is such an insistence on fairness in all aspects of the operation. NOT ALWAYS A SMOOTH RIDE Ani.ph is “spearheaded by three ladies, my daughter who's in charge of the logistics, a friend who's in charge of the sales and marketing, and myself who's in charge of the operation. We have the Igorot youth and our families helping us as well in the packing and delivery,” Gaspili says. This is actually the endeavor’s second iteration. The first one, though successful, encountered internal issues which necessitated the name change. This is why, more than ever, the people who work for and with Ani.ph value trust and between farmers, operators, and clients. It’s a value reflected in their name: “It's actually quite straightforward,” Gaspili says. “There's a unique sense of being a Filipino and being pro-farmer at the same time. We don't use the word quite often, but the word ‘ani’ speaks a lot about that exciting moment where farmers are able to reap what they worked hard for; at the same time, it's a representation of all the farmers working hard to supply Philippines' agricultural needs.” WORKING WITH BENGUET FARMERS Ani.ph works with around 20-30 farmers who cultivate a variety of highland produce such as broccoli, strawberries, Baguio pechay, and so on. Their farms are located in Madaymen, La Trinidad, Longlong, Bakun, and Buguias, all in Benguet, with a ratio of about one farmer to one hectare. “We're open to help all farmers. Both small scale and large scale farmers come to us to offer their produce and we contact them for orders,” Gaspili says. Much like Gaspili’s coffee shop, many of these farmers had lost access to their livelihood when travel was restricted to combat the spread of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, they traded their produce in the market and in trading posts or ‘bagsakan.’ Gaspili declined to state how much the farmers earn on average for their protection, saying that, “It is a big dilemma for farmers who are being taken advantage of by capitalists. In our own little way, we try our best to help them by paying them fairly.” WORKING WITHIN PANDEMIC CONDITIONS Ani.ph makes several deliveries to specific pickup points in Manila and other areas weekly. Clients pre-order and pay for their vegetables online and either drop by for them or have them delivered when they arrive at said pick up points. “Travel restrictions were the hardest because new checkpoints were always a surprise, and we had to deal with it while delivering produce which were sensitive to time and temperature, especially the strawberries. We had to preserve all our produce as much as we can to deliver quality Benguet products to our consumers. We also had to depend mostly on online transactions, which was quite tricky especially when we were receiving a lot of calls and messages from different clients. And since we're not familiar with places like Manila, Laguna, and Zambales, we had to rely on navigating apps to find our consumers as well,” Gaspili says. “On top of it [all], we had to keep ourselves extra healthy and observe all the health and safety protocols because we're going to and fro Manila - which has the largest count of COVID-19 positives.” PROUD TO CALL THEMSELVES FARMERS Gaspili’s shift from running a coffee shop to facilitating a vegetable delivery service has made an impact on her, the farmers she works with, and the clients who enjoy Baguio-fresh fruits and vegetables. Feedback is important to ensure that operations are favorable to everyone. “We were able to hear different kinds of comments, and suggestions from both the farmers and our consumers to improve our approach in distributing produce. There were losses, but at the end of the day, we got to meet new people who were willing to join our cause in supporting [Philippine] farmers,” Gaspili shares. “Our hearts are filled with joy as well when farmers happily receive their fair share [of income]. At the back of our heads, we always knew that agriculture is important, but this truth was amplified by the pandemic.” An unforeseen but delightful side effect of the enterprise is that working with Ani.ph has given many of the farmers’ children a sense of pride in what their parents do for a living, to the point that some of them have changed their minds about agriculture and now want to pursue farming as a career. “[Before, these] kids [were] ashamed to show that they are farmers. But now I'm so happy to see [that]... at their young age, they are hard working and [are] proud to tell [others] that they are farmers,” Gaspili says. “It's a big help [that] our friends and clients in Manila... appreciate them and always thank them for bringing fresh vegetables to their tables. We built the relationship between us and our clients and [have] become good friends. Now [our clients] can't wait for the pandemic to be over so that they can visit us here in the mountains and meet other farmers.” An event such as a global pandemic is never a good thing, but sometimes, the biggest setbacks become a chance to connect with other people and discover something good about oneself. As Gaspili says, “What I love most about farming is seeing my family, my children, and my friends take interest in farming, and seeing how proud they are that they are farmers.” Photos courtesy of Wammie Gaspili

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