By Yvette Tan, published by Manila Bulletin on March 3, 2019
Women are natural peacemakers.
In the case of Sulu Royal Coffee, the peacemaking is literal.
Princess Kumala “Lalah” Shug Elardo, of the Royal House of the Sultanate of Sulu, was born in Panamao, a remote, high conflict area in Sulu. She grew up in Zamboanga, but found herself back in the village where she was born in 2007 when she had to accompany her daughter who worked as the municipal medical officer in the area. “She volunteered to go there because no doctors would like to go there,” Princess Lalah says. “I was challenged because even I have not been there for so long.”
During her stay, Princess Lalah, a former social worker, noticed that a lot of the people were jobless. “I saw the women carrying pails of water, the men are carrying guns,” she recounts. “I thought of doing something. There must be something better.”
Coffee production caught her attention because she would see people laying down coffee beans on the dirt road so that they could intentionally be run over by vehicles. “Sinasadya nila para madepulp. Wala silang machines, parang wala talaga silang knowhow on coffee. (Doon) ko naisip ang kape.”
It all started with water
The first project that brought the community together was the construction of a system that would bring water to the village from a mountain source four kilometers away. “(Since) it’s going down,maybe we can do it through gravity, because I have seen some places in Luzon na may ganun.”
Not everyone was on board at first. “Sabi nila nobody would come, because this is a conflict area. I told (them) wala nga pupunta dito kung wala pupuntahan. We should do something.”
They estimated that the project would be done in 90 days. They finished in 21. “Kasi nung nakita na ng iba na may chance na yung tubig, everybody participated,” Princess Lalah shares. “Narealize nila ‘yung group efforts can really produce results.”
Picking the best beans
Princess Lalah tried to harness this newfound spirit of unity. “Nakikita ko naman ‘yung coffee, nandoon lang, mga tao, nandiyan, walang ginagawa, sabi ko siguro mas maganda kung nasa coffee na lang tayo.”
It took some time to convince the locals to try their luck with coffee because of the negative experiences associated with its production. Coffee can only be harvested once a year, and because of bad production practices, was sold for cheap. Princess Lalah was determined to change this. “Sabi ko, ‘subukan nating gawing mahal,” she says.
She began attending seminars on coffee production, meeting the members of the Philippine Coffee Board, of which she is now a director, along the way. “Ang concept ko talaga noon, baguhin ang quality. Ang business, wala pa akong alam. Hindi ko pa alam kung papaano ko siya i-trade o ano, basta ayusin ang quality para maibenta ng mataas at mag-inom tayo ng magandang kape.”
One of their first products was civet coffee, or coffee beans processed through the digestive tract of the civet cat that is harvested
in its droppings. Princess Lalah shares that since civet coffee wasn’t drunk in the area, she received her first batch free. She sold it in Manila and returned the money to the farmers. “Sabi nila, ‘galing yan sa kape?’ Yung isa, ayaw talaga maniwala. It was the beginning. Sabi niya, meron palang pera sa kape.”
A woman’s touch
Slowly, the community began to refine their processes. Princess Lalah credits this to the work of the local women. “Ang women kasi, mabusisi at sa tingin ko rin, mas madali silang maniwala, lalo na kung babae ang (mag-explain) sa kanila,” Princess Lalah says. “Meticulous ang mga babae, nakikita nila ang hindi dapat, madali sila magfollow.”
She explained that she fully earned the trust of the community after she set up a daycare program for the local children. “Unti-unti, napansin ko na paisa-isa lumalapit yung mga asawa nila kasi sabi ko taga rito ako, although yung asawa ko military, syempre ang puso ko, nandito pa rin. But kung ako ang tataanungin, ayaw ko ng may away, ayaw ko ng may gulo kasi both sides, nasasaktan din ako,” she says. “Nagumpisa kami noong naniniwala na sila.”
This was in 2008. They didn’t start earning until the next year, and profits have been growing since.
Better lives through coffee
The People’s Alliance for Progress Multi-Purpose Cooperative (PAPMPC) was set up in 2010, producing fine coffee under the Sulu Royal Coffee brand. The coffee is planted on 124 hectares of Agrarian Reform land, with room for expansion.
Each partner farmer started earning an average of P15,000 annually in 2009, which has risen to about P200,000 in 2018. Green beans are sold at P300-P350 a kilo while roasted ones fetch Php500-700 a kilo.
The cooperative currently has 374 members and has inspired 11 sister cooperatives, for a total of 2200 farmers. None of the members have ever had to take out a loan.
In between coffee harvest seasons, the farmers supplemented their income by intercropping with plants like ginger, turmeric, kamote, gabi, ube, bananas, and various vegetables. They are also currently exploring other agri-products with assistance from the Department of Agriculture, STI, and DOST.
The farmers’ lives have changed for the better. They have been able to send their children to school (In a speech Princess Lalah said that by 2016, 28 students have graduated from college, 230 from high school, and 350 from elementary).
They have been able to put up houses and now have a better water system. There is peace and order in the area, and government workers have set up health centers and the like.
Other people have started their own businesses. A lot of former insurgents have laid down their guns in exchange for farming. “Kasi nasubukan nila to live with their families, with their children and their wives. Masarap daw ganun,” Princess Lalah says. “I told them, don’t just look at coffee as coffee. Look at it as money. It’s the money that you plant, not just coffee because this coffee will give you money forever, even though it’s only (harvested) once a year. That training in the hills will not give you anything.”
The little coop that could
The PAPMPC continues to grow its distribution network. Last year, they penned and agreement with Universal Robina Corporation (URC) with the help of GoNegosyo. An investor has offered to inject a sizable sum into their operations which will allow them to buy new machines and upgrade their facilities.
The coop also recently purchased property where they plan to set up a training center for other people in the province, since a lot of groups have been wanting to replicate the coop’s model. “I think Philippine coffee has a good future,” Princess Lalah said. “Ang kailangan lang dito ay pagandahin ang mga magkakape, bigyan ng tamag attention ang mga coffee farming and farmers. We have good coffee in the Philippines.”
With coffee gaining such prestige all over the world even as demand continues to outpace supply, there is potentially a lot of money to be made, especially if the beans are farmed and processed with care. “I think sa coffee, nadiyan ang market because the demand is so high and the supply is so low,” Princess Lalah says. Makikita mo naman sa coffee shop. Kailangan ng kape sa Pilipinas. You don’t have to look for the market. It’s the market that will look for coffee.”