COMAVEMCO on weathering storms, responding to the pandemic, and rising again 

COMAVEMCO

“Early morning after the typhoon, I came here, and I was shocked. It was a mess, there were piles of trash. We lost one of our motorcycles. We lost a lot of equipment. Our water refilling [station] is located at the other side of the road, but it was still damaged by the winds. The public market was in a total wreck, washed out. Our members were crying, they were asking me, what will we do?” Engr. Ebonito “Bon” Alivio of the Compostela Market Vendors Multi-Purpose Cooperative (COMAVEMCO) shares what their cooperative and its members saw in the aftermath of Typhoon Odette (international name: Rai) which struck the Caraga Region, and some parts of the Visayas and Palawan in December of 2021. 

Their office in the municipality of Compostela, Cebu is located near the coastline facing the Camotes Sea. Compostela is situated in the northeastern coast of the Cebu Island. Just as preparations for Christmas celebrations were underway despite waves of COVID-19 surges in the second year of the pandemic, Typhoon Odette made its landfall on December 16, 2021, leaving massive damage in infrastructure and livelihood. Those severely affected were coastal communities in Surigao del Norte, Dinagat Islands, Southern Leyte, Bohol, and Cebu, including Compostela. In February 2022, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council placed the damage to agriculture at 17.7 billion and damage to infrastructure at 29.3 billion. 

For many social enterprises such as COMAVEMCO, navigating through the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has remained a challenge even after two years since its outbreak in 2020, with some enterprises permanently closing down. Building back both from a global pandemic and a super typhoon is no easy feat. Yet, COMAVEMCO persists. 

“Even with the pandemic and after Odette, we are still here. We can still serve the members. We can still serve the community,” Alivio says with might, enthusiasm, and optimism. 

COMAVEMCO demonstrates that an enterprise built on strong foundations of looking after its people, nourishing its community, and taking care of our common home will stand the test of time, weather storms, survive a pandemic, and rise again. 

A community enterprise 

Engr. Alivio, General Manager, was among those who organized COMAVEMCO in June 1998. It started as a closed cooperative, catering only to market vendors in Compostela with the main objective of offering credit services with affordable interest rates and savings development to its members. 

“When I was thinking to organize the cooperative, my main objective was to eradicate the turkos, these are people who lend money to the market vendors with very high interests. When we started, I observed that every four in the afternoon, there are more than ten turkos roaming around the public market, collecting money from the vendors. One year after our initial operations, only one turko was left and that was because he was married to a market vendor. Eventually, he stopped lending too when he saw the strength of the cooperative,” shared Alivio. 

The cooperative eventually opened its doors to the community, accommodating an unbankable group of farmers, fisherfolk, and micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to enable them to fund their agricultural projects and small business activities. 

“They come to us and tell us that it is very difficult for them to go to the banks, since they have a lot of requirements. We tell them that as members of the cooperative, they are only required to comply with very simple requirements, as long as their capacity to pay is within the bounds of the policies of the cooperative.” 

With its development as an open-type cooperative, COMAVEMCO grew from just offering credit and savings, to developing products that suit the needs of its members, particularly the farmers. From loans for MSMEs, the cooperative developed an agricultural loan window for farmers. It also enabled them to establish a supply chain among its members. 

“Farmer members who are producing agricultural products should share their product to the market vendors. In fact, right now, we have a program in swine fattening and breeding. Our members are giving their livestock to our members in the market. The members of the cooperative buy from market vendors.”

The cooperative is also an accredited non-government organization by the provincial and municipal governments. In Compostela, they participate in several local government bodies such as the Municipal Development Council and several committees on the environment. “We see to it that we participate in meetings. We want to be aware of the plans and programs of the local government so that we can collaborate with them. For example, the coastal management has a cleaning program, we make sure we participate. We also conduct tree planting activities,” shares Alivio. 

Apart from observing ways to conserve energy, the cooperative also expressed plans to install solar panels in their office to support their electricity requirements. 

Among their members, the cooperative helps increase awareness on proper solid waste management. “The whole family including the children must be aware. We suggested to the local government to integrate the program in schools so that children can be taught how to segregate,” Alivio shares. 

In 2018, they received recognition as most outstanding non-government organization from the local government of Compostela. In the same year, COMAVEMCO was also awarded as “Most Outstanding Community Enterprise” under the Villar Sipag Award on Poverty Reduction. 

We live in a community – the environment, the people. It’s very good to see a community where people do good so that the community will be a better place to live in. 

Bon Alivio, COMAVEMCO

The cooperative started in 1998 with 22 pioneer members, and a modest capital buildup of Php 5,500. Twenty-four years since then, COMAVEMCO now has around 7,000 members, with Php 210 million in assets. They have the main branch in Compostela, and two satellite offices in Carmen and Tabogon, employing 28 staff. 

COMAVEMCO has been a partner of the Foundation for a Sustainable Society, Inc (FSSI) since 2016. “The platform that I saw in FSSI is very encouraging and I saw how it can support cooperatives,” Alivio says. 

Through FSSI’s support to its microfinance project for agricultural loans and SMEs, the cooperative aims to increase its support to 850 farmers, 200 fisherfolk, and 676 small entrepreneurs by the end of 2022. 

COMAVEMCO’s impact on the local economy in Compostela is solidified through the cooperative’s management of a local outlet called the Dairy Box in 2018, through a partnership with the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC). The Dairy Box serves as a venue for COMAVEMCO and other cooperatives to sell their products. 

“Kapag nakikita ang Dairy Box, ang nasa isip ng mga tao, gatas at queseo. [When people see the Dairy Box, they think of milk and queseo.] In Compostela, our special product is queseo, a local white cheese derived from carabao’s milk. Traditionally, Compostela is very famous for that particular product and the only problem is that there is no promotion. As a cooperative, we saw the opportunity. 

We tried to talk to the local government. We said we are a cooperative, we have carabao farmers. How about we will do the promotion, innovate the product? We will establish a facility so that the product, queseo, will be showcased and the market will be wider. We will give emphasis to its marketing. Now when people look for queseo, they look for COMAVEMCO.” 

The Dairy Box adds value to the raw milk being produced by their members who are dairy farmers as COMAVEMCO acts as consolidator. The cooperative processes the milk into varieties of dairy beverages, ice cream, and most especially, queseo. 

At Dairy Box, patrons come and go looking for their favorite milk or soya drink, while some Cebuano youth enjoy their queseo with crackers. Travelers and tourists alike come to Compostela, searching for the town’s product. 

Promoting Compostela’s budding industry 

The center of queseo production in Compostela is a community of around 70 carabao farmers in the upper barangays of Lupa, Mulao, and Dapdap, about half an hour away from the COMAVEMCO office in central Compostela. These farming families also commercially produce queseo. 

Among them is Condrada “Condring” Seballo whose family has raised water buffalos for almost four decades in Lupa. Condring and other carabao farmers used to depend on middlemen who did not compensate them well for their products, or worse, did not pay at all. 

“Dati meron kaming suki dito, sila ‘yung magbebenta sa iba’t-ibang clients sa city– sa mga hotel, restaurant. May iba na kukuha ng queseo dito tapos uutangin. ‘Yung iba di babayaran. Nakatulong yung coop kasi ‘yung queseo namin, mabibili nila tapos nandiyan na agad ang bayad. Kung meron mga quality breed na kalabaw na nasa kapitbahay na ibebenta pagkatapos gusto namin na bilhin, tutulungan din kami ng coop,” Condring shares. 

[We had a client who brings our products and offers them to hotels and restaurants in the city. Some will get our product and not settle the payment. The cooperative helped us because they buy our queseo and give the payments promptly. If there are quality breed carabao from our neighbors that we would wish to acquire, the cooperative will also help us.] 

When they joined COMAVEMCO, the cooperative steadily buys their milk at Php 60 per liter and gives the payment on time, allowing them to increase their profits. The cooperative also provides other benefits such as mortuary, medical assistance, and credit and savings. Additionally, the cooperative sets aside some of the payments from the borrowers and puts them in their savings, enabling them to borrow and save at the same time. The cooperative also offers a program where it assists members who would like to own either a male carabao for farm work or a female carabao for dairy production and source it from other members who would like to sell. 

“Malaki ang improvement namin mula nung naging members kami ng coop kasi ‘yung kalabaw na dini-disperse nila, anak lang isa, sa amin na ‘yung kalabaw. Maraming farmers dito na nagkaron ng kalabaw kasi tinulungan sa coop. Kasi kung wala ang coop, mahirap makakuha ng kalabaw ‘yung farmers kasi sa presyo pa lang na Php 50,000 to Php 60,000 per kalabaw,” Condring says. [There was a lot of improvement for us when we joined the cooperative. The carabaos that they disperse would be left to us after producing an offspring. Many farmers here acquired their own carabaos because of the assistance of the coop. Without the coop, it would be very difficult for farmers to acquire their own carabao which usually costs around Php 50,000 to Php 60,000.] 

More and more farmers are availing of the program seeing it as an opportunity to increase their income, better provide for their families, and send their children to school. 

The cooperative also takes this chance to encourage members to preserve the environment. “Lalo na ‘yung pagtanim ng mga tanim para sa kalabaw, ine-encourage namin sila sa vermicomposting para at least meron silang additional income kung magawa ‘yung fertilizer. At ‘yung lugar na hindi masyadong mawalan ng mga kahoy, kasi ‘yun ang pinaka-importante para ma-protect ‘yung environment,” Alivio says. [We encourage them to do vermicomposting in raising their water buffalos, and not to cut down trees because that is most important to protect the environment.] 

Riding the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted supply chains and the cooperative was forced to suspend its dairy processing. “Biglang nawala talaga. [Our operations abruptly stopped]. The farmers stopped producing because we have no market,” Alivio recounts. “In the first three months, we tried to accommodate the farmers. We bought their milk, but it stayed in our facility. The farmers lost their income. The cooperative also lost our opportunity to earn.” 

It was a very difficult time for the cooperative, as the pandemic put a halt to everything they have worked to build. In the first week of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, they closed office. They only maintained a skeletal workforce in their office to accommodate members who would like to withdraw their savings. There were no transactions apart from withdrawals. 

Although the public market was open, there were very strict health protocols that had to be observed 

and mobility was restricted. There was very low foot traffic as public transportation also stopped. To assist their members, COMAVEMCO initiated a mobile market to roam around the community bringing some of their members’ agricultural products to other areas. They were also mobilized by the Department of Agriculture to distribute food subsidy and grocery items to the farmers in ten municipalities in Northern Cebu. 

The cooperative adjusted with waves of COVID-19 surges as restrictions eased and heightened several times in the two years of the pandemic. “When we felt na ito na talaga ang normal, we adjusted. [When we felt that this would really be the new normal, we adjusted.] We started holding virtual meetings. Our staff worked from home. Our collectors who needed to visit the borrowers, we provided them with personal protective equipment.” 

They also saw how middlemen took advantage of the pandemic to charge higher rates to farmers who needed to transport their goods. “We saw this problem during the pandemic. The farmers can’t do anything. So, we came in and picked up their livestock with low rates and helped them transport their livestock to the market. We are trying to continue this as part of our new normal,” Alivio shares. 

Rebuilding from Typhoon Odette

“There were typhoons here, but not as strong as Odette. We were surprised with the strength of Odette. The weather forecast did not indicate the typhoon was to hit the Northern part of Cebu. There was no preparation. The typhoon hit on a Friday. We were here at the office on Thursday, we were having our Christmas party, and the weather was fine. Friday came and at 3:00 pm, it started to rain. There were strong winds. From 3:00 pm to 10:00 pm, Odette struck the area,” Alivio recalls. 

The situation also encouraged looting in the area in the middle of the chaos. COMAVEMCO prioritized giving assistance to the market vendors seeing as they were the ones most severely affected. They provided cash assistance, and responded to members who reapplied for loans so that they can rebuild their livelihood. 

“Because of Odette, we are trying to be resilient. We are also planning to improve our infrastructure to have some barrier to protect us from strong winds, since we are near the coastline.” 

They resumed operations at the office in January 2021, started repairing their motorcycles, and did an inventory of their equipment, majority of which were damaged. They have decided to put up capital to rebuild and resume their dairy operations. 

COMAVEMCO On rising again 

It was a show of grit when COMAVEMCO opened its new branch in Tabogon in February 2021 despite a year into the pandemic. 

“That is part of our three-year development plan. Sabi ko kahit pandemic, we will pursue this,” Alivio says. [That is part of our three-year development plan. Even with the pandemic, I said, we will pursue this.] 

The cooperative also draws its strength from its members. “A cooperative is only as good as its members. It needs quality members to progress. The biggest challenge that we faced was that there were some members who were not giving importance to their responsibilities. But we remain positive, and we keep on educating and engaging them little by little so that those who do not comply will eventually do and those that already do good, will even do better. In our General Assemblies, we also recognize exemplary members,” Alivio shares. 

With the coming 2022 National Elections, he expresses hope that future leaders will become supportive of cooperatives and that the sector could gain representation in the government’s legislative body. 

“The coops are tax-exempt. But the issue is still hanging, we don’t know in the future if the leaders will support coops. The election is very important. Personally, I need a leader who is non-corrupt. I need a leader who is hardworking. I need a leader with academic excellence. I need a leader that can connect to the poor, connect to the masses,” he says. 

Three months after Odette hit, COMAVEMCO is still rebuilding, repairing, and replacing their equipment destroyed by the typhoon, but with values intact and a commitment to their social mission, COMAVEMCO provides hope and inspiration that pushing forward fairer and stronger is possible. Social enterprises could spur the movement towards a more inclusive post-pandemic economy. 

Our vision is to become a cooperative with empowered members, we have to continue that. We would like to achieve our pre-pandemic targets, and do more to progress, and continue developing for the members and for the community. 

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