The COVID-19 pandemic caused significant stresses and disruption in the local food supply chain. At the height of the crisis, bottlenecks in transport and logistics disrupted the movement of products. There was shortage in supplies in major consumer areas and a surplus in producing communities. Farmer cooperatives in Mindanao were experiencing difficulties selling their produce, while consumer cooperatives in Luzon were having problems getting their supplies. A solution was reached through the Coops4Food initiative, a coop-to-coop trading initiated by the Philippine Family Farmers’ Agriculture Fisheries Forestry Cooperatives Federation (AgriCOOPh), a national federation of agricultural cooperatives in the country.
The roots of the Coops4Food initiative began in 2019 when AgriCOOPh conducted a feasibility study on creating a rice cooperative hub. The idea was connecting the farmers directly to the consumers without passing through different layers, and how one cooperative can be connected to another cooperative in need of rice. In their study, they found that rice from the province of Agusan was being brought to other regions to be milled, to other bigger traders, and during lean months the rice would be brought back to Agusan. Agusan’s harvest season for rice was opposite from that of Tagum in Davao del Norte. After realizing there was a high demand for rice by consumer or multi-purpose cooperatives in urban centers, AgriCOOPh thought of doing a coop-to-coop trade. The first coop-to-coop trade was rolled out in the same year. Rice cooperatives in Butuan were tapped to supply rice to ACDI Multi-Purpose Cooperative, which had different branches in Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, General Santos City and Davao. This was later on expanded and other rice cooperatives have been convinced to participate.
“That’s our first experience and we said pwede pala mag coop-to-coop; it’s a matter of talking to the coop kung ano kailangan nila. Ang rallying point, we need to help the farmers, then tayo ang dapat unang tutulong sa kanila for them to able to continue producing food,” (We realized coop-to-coop trading was possible and it was a matter of talking to the coop to know what they need. We should be the first one to help the farmers for them to be able to continue producing food) said Cresente Paez, AgriCOOPh’s Chief Executive Officer.
AgriCOOPh’s first experience with coop-to-coop trading would prove to be a valuable lesson when the COVID-19 pandemic happened. The federation is one of the implementing organizations of the GROW Coop project, funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Agriterra. The program’s focus is to facilitate the evolution of large, successful local cooperatives into local resource organizations that will provide mentoring and capacity development support to fledgling and struggling micro and small agriculture-oriented cooperatives. When COVID-19 hit, the program was given additional funding to mount a pandemic response. “Sabi nila, ano ba magagawa natin? Sabi namin, sige gawin natin ang experience namin sa Agusan sa Manila. Because it is a response, gawin natin siyang action research, learning by doing at the same time. In other words, we were ready to learn and, if we fail, we will use failure as a means to improve and get back on our feet,” Paez shares.
At the time, supply of produce in major urban areas was scarce while there was oversupply in some farming communities. The group immediately mobilized Dumagat farmers in Sierra Madre in the Tanay, Rizal, and Quezon areas, and partnered with a consolidator. The cooperative-consolidator would collect the available produce while AgriCOOPh would look for the markets. Soon enough, they facilitated trade of vegetables from cooperatives in Baguio to cooperatives in Batangas, as well rice from Cagayan to cooperatives in Rizal. In its first run, it was able to penetrate Gourmet Farms, one of the biggest coffee traders and advocates of the local organic food movement. It also tapped church-based organizations which mounted relief drives to their communities.
To address the supply shortage in urban areas, the Coops4Food established “TiTaStores,” short for “tindahang tapat” which are neighborhood food stalls run by women including former overseas Filipino workers who have been displaced from work because of the pandemic. The “titas” would set up tables in front of their homes and sell produce sourced from farmers all over the country. The TiTaStores not only provided livelihood activities for the women but also supported indigenous peoples from producer cooperatives.
AgriCOOPh would later expand to trade of organic rice. With FSSI’s capitalization support, it sourced out black rice for distribution to the church-run Veritas. The federation’s trading activities have continued to grow so it decided to migrate from basic social media marketing to an e-commerce platform, which it is currently developing.
Strengthening Agri Cooperatives in PH
AgriCOOPh was founded in 2017 by various cooperatives, with the leadership of Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka or PAKISAMA, which is a national movement and confederation of small farmer, fisher, indigenous people, rural women and youth organizations and the support of Collectif Strategies Alimentaries (CSA), a Belgian NGO active in the area of agriculture and food security. “They found out agricoops in the country are the slowest, weakest, most behind in the development of the coop sector, and at the same time the agri coops are fragmented and dispersed. The idea is to solidify. Although they are weak, but if mobilized and organized into one national federation, maybe the sector can fast-track its development,” shared Paez. The organization of the federation was supported by various NGOs and civil society organizations, including a number of consortiums of cooperatives. The following year, it was registered and its operations started. Starting with 20 members, the organization has now grown to 28 members.