Agripreneurship is touted as the future of farming, one that will ensure sustainable growth of Philippine agriculture and profitability for those who get into it. But still very few dare to get their hands dirty and take the risk. Three agricultural entrepreneurs who thrived in this arena shared with The Inquirer the values and lessons they learned along the way.
The man behind AgriNurture Inc. (ANI), Tiu’s love affair with farming started as early as 1996. His successful venture—nearly 24 years in the making—grew from exporting local commodities to developing plant-based food items and providing financial access to farmers in rural communities.
Throughout the years, he held on to two important principles that allowed him to take his company to greener landscapes—patience and perseverance.
“Agriculture is sometimes perceived to be risky and a slow-burn business in the sense that you don’t get rich quickly. It’s a business that requires you to work hard and be patient. It requires long-term reason and you need to plan the business for decades. It’s an uphill battle but it’s very fulfilling especially when you know you’re doing something good for the country. The reward is beyond financial because it also makes you feel good,” he says.
Talking to Tiu was like taking a crash course in agriculture as he dissected every part of the value chain, stressing that “when you see a lot of inefficiencies, that means opportunities.”
Part of what makes ANI one of the most attractive companies in the market today is its ability to stay resilient amid economic headwinds. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, ANI was one of the first agricultural companies that shifted to e-commerce to bring its produce to more people. Between January and September, the firm raked in a net income of P355.21 million, 510 percent higher than its earnings in the past year.
For Tiu, addressing the gaps in agriculture, even in small steps, can make a lot of difference.
To do this, an entrepreneur does not need to have millions in the bank. He says agriculture is actually the most flexible industry in terms of capital deployment. Entrepreneurs can start with a hectare of land and grow from there.
His word of advice to aspiring agrpreneurs? “Start with the right intention.” Tiu takes pride in ANI’s relationship with its suppliers. Over the years, ANI saw some of its small-scale mango and vegetable farmers become millionaires and take on other farm ventures—a testament that there is money in agriculture when done right.
“The key to growing agriculture is we have to evolve from producing raw materials to producing finished products. We have to shift the mentality. Let us aspire to be more—not just manual producers but game-changers.”
Fernandez has been exposed to farming all his life, as his family has been into this business in Nueva Ecija. His father, Larry Fernandez, has been in the industry for more than four decades, which gave Jef a headstart when he decided to join the family business about seven years ago.
The Fernandez family is behind Jelfarm Fresh Produce Enterprise, an agricultural company known for its exports of onion, mangoes, saluyot, edamame and, recently, okra.
Jelfarm recently forged a partnership with the Department of Agriculture to provide livelihood to farmers as it expands its market reach and its production areas. Many of Jelfarm’s farmer-partners were able to better their lives given a consistent income stream—some were able to send their children to college, build new homes, and even purchase their own vehicles.
“Agriculture has so much potential as long as you can successfully grow your product and have the right marketing strategy ,” says Jef. “The key is finding long-term business partners and setting up a team that will help you grow your business in a harmonious manner.”
There are several communities involved in the cultivation of Jelfarm’s agricultural products and with that comes challenges. Natural calamities such as typhoons and droughts may damage the crops and make them susceptible to pest infestation. Fernandez says it is important to work diligently with chemical suppliers and create a system that can lessen the impact of these challenges and increase productivity.
More than exportation, Fernandez believes there is a “very, very big room” for growth in the industry. Those who like to venture into agriculture may focus on production,distribution, sales, logistics, and even develop apps that can help bridge the gaps in the value chain. All these are especially crucial as the government focuses on food security, he says.
“We need to be able to focus on processing and preserving wasted fruits and vegetables so we can have a stable supply. We need to focus on improving our local crops and developing new technology with the help of our government.”
More than having the capital to engage in a new business, Jef believes an agripreneur must bring to the table a mission.
“Have a mission and vision and pray for it. With God in your forefront, the sky’s the limits,” he says. “Market access is key and proper budgeting is a must. Be aggressive yet conservative, open your minds to anything, humbles yourselves, and be patient. It is all about timing.”
For Romaraog, all farmers are entrepreneurs, too. To empower them, she created Session Groceries—an app that allows Filipinos to order fresh produce and
other agricultural goods online to be delivered to the comfort of their homes.
A Baguio native, Romaraog has been helping mostly farmers in Cordillera, but their operations have branched out to other regions as well, including certain provinces in Calabarzon and Mimaropa.
“As long as you are trading, you are an entrepreneur,” she says. “That is something we have to keep reminding [the farmers]. We have to brainwash them to let go of the old system and make them realize that they can be rich in this endeavor.”
Session does not only provide a steady market for local producers, it also conducts seminars and provides training to farmers on how to manage their inventory. This enables them to dictate their farm-gate price as they learn how to include their input and labor costs – things that most farmers don’t know how to do despite laboring for decades.
The team behind Session Groceries also started a “Farmers Millionaire’s Club” as farmers are beginning to realize more profits. For Romaraog, setting the bar this high encourages farmers to persevere, and believe in themselves that they, too, can be millionaires.
To be a successful agripreneur, she believes that one must have the commitment and the intention to uplift not only one’s own standing but the rest of the team as well – and that includes all stakeholders.
The entrepreneur adds that the business idea was born out of her and her friends’ determination to cut the post-harvest losses in the farms, especially in Cordillera where farmers are often forced to throw their fresh harvests from the lack of market access and their inability to invest in facilities that could extend the shelf life of their goods.
As someone without a background in agriculture, she is a testament to this ethos. Romaraog is a marketing analyst and uses her knowledge and experience to address the gaps in the value chain.
“There will only be changes in the way we do things in agriculture if we will empower the farmers by teaching them how to empower themselves,” she says.
This, she adds, will not only lift the plight of local producers but will also make the country food-secure.