By Czarina C. Imperial
Some success stories start with a joke. Seriously.
Binanuaanan Farmers Community Development Association (BFCDA) chair Edison Petallo, once started a joke about making tablea but it didn’t make them cry. Instead it started to make their world sweeter with success that today, their cacao-processing venture is no joking matter anymore. It has become a sustainable and profitable livelihood for them.
The BFCDA is an Agrarian Reform Beneficiary Organization (ARBO) under the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) organized and registered under the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) sometime in 2009. It is composed of 223 members and is based in Barangay Binanuaanan, in the capital town of Pili, Camarines Sur, Bicol Region.
Originally, ARBO’s plan was to venture into food processing. They wanted to try meat processing such as making longganisa, tocino, or meat loaf. “We also wanted to make street food like fish balls and siomai and supply them to local establishments in Pili and in nearby areas. That was one of our original plans,” Petallo related.
With the DAR’s help, proposals were written seeking both technical and financial assistance from different government agencies. It was discovered, however, that there were inadequate raw materials in the area, raising doubts on the project’s sustainability. BFCDA also accepted the fact that they had no sufficient start-up capital and no identified fund source as the ARBO’s counterpart for their dream business.
When Petallo learned about the disapproval of their proposals during one of the DAR’s quarterly meetings with ARBOs, he said in frustration: “Maray pang maggibo na sanang tablea! (Better to make tablea then!)” He meant it as a joke. He never thought that his joke would compel former DAR-Camarines Sur II Program Beneficiaries Development Division (PBDD) Chief Agrarian Reform Program Officer(CARPO) and now PARPO II Maria Gracia R. Sales to validate if there were indeed cacao planted in the area and eventually prepare the ARBO for cacao processing.
Six rejected proposals later and three months after Petallo’s joke, a number of validation visits were conducted by DAR-Camarines Sur PBDD staff at Barangay Binanuaanan. It was not exactly a surprise that the survey yielded a total of 700 cacao planters in Barangay Binanuaanan alone since the area is blessed with rich soil for agriculture.
Not as Viable
Rice, corn, and sugarcane farming has reached its maximum potential, Petallo explained. The variables in these high-value crops are not as easily discounted, thus, the margin in farming such crops is not as viable as in cacao processing. As it happened, their luck turned with the invitation of the DAR-DTI Convergence on tablea making, which was attended by 40 BFCDA members. That was when they learned how to make sweetened and unsweetened chocolate balls.
From 2013, BFCDA members continue to participate in trainings, including Harvesting and Fermentation of Cacao Beans, Training on Tablea (Coco Bites) Production and Packaging, Operations Planning for Livelihood Projects, Industry Updates and Business Opportunity Identification, Training on Product Quality Control and GMP for Tablea, Entrepreneurial and Business Management Training, Training/Workshop on Internal Control, Salabat (Ginger tea) Making, Product Development on Packaging and Good Manufacturing Practices, Social Entrepreneurship Learning Infusion Activity, Upgrading of Tablea, Food Safety Training, and Market Strategy cum Product Enhancement. Petallo scours the Internet for trainings and seminars that they can attend, as means of improving and adding to their skills.
The B-Farm Cacao products come in several varieties and packaging. They are available in pasalubong centers and trade fairs all year round. Choco farm products usually reach peak demand toward December and wanes by around March, but the demand is constant, Petallo said.
At present, the BFCDA has over 1,400 cacao seedlings planted. They produce tablea variants, which include sweetened tablea at 12 pieces, sweetened tablea at four pieces, unsweetened tablea at 12 pieces, unsweetened tablea at four pieces and sweetened tablea standing pouch. Their tablea is good for cooking as a drink and for eating as candy. It has the consistency of commercially available dark chocolate candies that both kids and adults appreciate.
On Nov. 7, 2016, BFCDA’s Tablea de Cacao and Choco Farm were featured in ABS-CBN’s entrepreneurial informative show, Swak na Swak. The TV show featured the area as one of Camarines Sur’s agri-tourism sites.
But chocolate farming is not all sugar and spice. ARBOs have had their share of bitterness. In October 2014, Typhoon Glenda struck the Bicol Region immensely destroying farmlands. On Christmas Day last year, disaster struck again. This time Typhoon Nina was stronger. The disasters left the BFCDA’s source of livelihood in shambles, their cacao trees almost wiped out, but the group did not surrender. Determined to get up from the destruction and while waiting for rehabilitation of their cacao trees, the members turned to an alternative project: ginger tea (salabat) making. They were able to produce variants such as instant salabat turmeric, instant salabat lemongrass, instant salabat pandan, instant salabat extra strong special, and instant salabat 10-in-1.
This allowed them to earn an income sufficient for them not only to revive their cacao-tablea business, but also to venture into several other projects. BFCDA’s future plans include mushroom production, candy making, producing and marketing spices and herbs, and organic liquid fertilizers.
The good thing is that cacao easily recovers and they can also source out raw materials from other areas of the province where cacao is grown, Petallo said.
“The surviving trees will be completely rehabilitated in six months. Although ginger’s cost is low and salabat is as viable, we still focus on continuing to supply Tablea products to our customers because tablea it is our flagship product,” he added. The Department of Agriculture (DA) gives the cacao seedlings.
Right now, they are testing production of tablea jam, tablea candies, and tablea cookies. The market demand is growing hence the urgent need for a tablea processing center, their fondest dream, said the dynamic and pro-active leader of BFCDA. The processing center they envision can also be an evacuation center. “We hope and pray for a generous donor who will help us build the processing center,” said because they can only be BFAD certified and be able to supply big supermarkets and even export, if they have the processing center.
“The people that make up BFCDA are committed, determined, and very persistent. They do not give up easily. They also maintain an open mind when it comes to business ventures. They are creative risk takers. They embrace opportunities and are never afraid to fail or face challenges. They even know how to transform bad experiences into wonderful prospects for the welfare of the organization. Best of all, the members’ strength is rooted in their faith in the officers and the organization, the same way that the ARBO depends on its officers and members for its continuous existence,” Maria Evangeline Salak, the Agrarian Reform Program officer I formerly assigned in the area, said when asked about to give a testimonial to BFCDA.
Recently, BFCDA was identified as one of the Partnership against Hunger and Poverty (PAHP) sites in Camarines Sur. The program has the objective of adopting a holistic approach in battling hunger and poverty issues in the country by educating and training farmers on organic vegetable farming and marketing their products to DSWD Day Care Centers and other markets. The ARBO is also continuously receiving Social Infrastructure and Local Capability Building (SILCAB) trainings from the DAR-Camarines Sur II, such as Records Management Training/Workshop, Coaching & Mentoring on Amendments of By-Laws & Articles of Incorporation, Review & Reformulation of VMGO, and Training on Good Governance.
These agrarian reform beneficiaries have proven to be responsible, hardworking, committed, and willing to take on any challenge that will come their way. With the able leadership of Petallo, a former barangay captain and an environmentalist at heart, the Choco Farm is ready to see sweeter days ahead.