A better life for coconut farmers in Gingoog

Misamis Oriental is the second largest producer of coconut in Northern Mindanao, with a total production of over 568 thousand metric tons in 2021. According to data from the Philippine Statistics Authority, the region accounted for 13 percent of the country’s total coconut production last year.

One contributor to the coconut-based market in the province is the Agay-ayan Multi-purpose Cooperative based in the city of Gingoog.

Photo Courtesy: AMCI

The Agay-ayan Multi-purpose Cooperative, Inc. or AMCI is an open-type community cooperative composed of 248 members, majority of whom are coconut farmers, located in Agay-ayan and nearby barangays.

A community-based enterprise

AMCI started as the Agay-ayan Small Coconut Farmers Association in 1987 with 25 farmer members aiming to venture into copra marketing. It was registered as a cooperative in 1992, welcoming other members in their community. The cooperative initially began with the production of copra until they diversified into other products derived from coconut. In 2009, AMCI ventured into the production of coco sugar and coco honey products when the demand for healthy alternative products in the market increased.

The production of coco sugar is a natural process of heat evaporation to convert liquid coconut sap to form sugar granules. The cooperative sources their coco sap from tappers in barangays around Gingoog City, mainly from San Luis, Bagubad, Minsapinit, and Tagpaco. Because of the distance, the coconut sap collected by tappers is immediately processed and caramelized at the farm level to prevent it from spoilage during transport. To facilitate this, the cooperative provides them with a concrete pugon, and trains them on processing standards and specifications.

At a production rate of 20 kg per day of coconut sugar and five liters of coco honey in 2014, AMCI was already able to produce healthy and high-quality organic products and provide income and sustainable livelihood opportunities to farmers in Gingoog.

Apart from this, the cooperative aims to instill environmental sustainability by discouraging farmers to cut down trees to use for firewood and not to perform open burning of leaves and waste materials.

“Nakatulong naman po ito, lalo na po sa nangunguha ng sap, yung nangangarit, dahil mas malaki ‘yong kita nila kumpara sa mga ordinaryong magsasaka lamang. Iyon pong mga hindi marunong mangarit ay nangangarit na po ngayon. Sa halip na sila ay naggagamas lang doon sa ilalim ng niyogan, nangangarit na sila kaya nakakatulong po tayo nang kaunti, [This has helped, most especially to the mangangarit—farmers who collect coconut sap by tapping—because they get paid with a more generous amount compared to ordinary farmers. Those who used to have no knowledge in tapping are now skilled in the work. Instead of just weeding beneath the coconut groves, they now do coconut tapping, which tells that we are indeed able to give them a little help,]shared Isabelita Labial, the cooperative’s General Manager.

With support from the regional office of the Department of Agriculture, they were also able to put up an outlet in their Barangay Food Terminal where they sell their coconut products.

The lack of working capital, however, kept them from growing their community enterprise. With a recommendation from a partner in the DA, AMCI sought the support of the Foundation for a Sustainable Society, Inc. (FSSI) for the expansion of their coco sugar production.

“Noon ay parang trial-trial pa lang kami. Hindi kami maka-move forward, hindi kami makapalayo dahil nga wala kaming kapital. Naturuan kami na sa FSSI ay matutulungan kaming mapahiram. Kaya doon nagsimula ang aming mass production sa coconut sugar. Nakabili kami ng equipment kahit kakaunti, tapos karamihan ay sa working capital. [Back then, we only used to dip our toes in it. We could not move forward with our enterprise; we could not progress because we lacked capital. We were then introduced to FSSI and we were advised that they can help us by lending to us. From then on, we were able to start our coconut sugar mass production. We got to purchase a few equipment, then most of the funds were used for working capital,]” Labial recalled.

As a budding enterprise, the cooperative also experienced challenges in marketing their products. They had their break upon participating religiously in trade fairs held by the DA in Manila, wherein they had the opportunity to introduce their products to potential buyers. They also maximize social media in increasing awareness on their products. At peak, the cooperative was able to increase their production rate to up to two tons of coco sugar per month.

Unfortunately, the cooperative hit a roadblock with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Like many small enterprises, AMCI’s operations was negatively affected. The sales that the enterprise made significantly lessened as several of their bulk buyers shut down their operations. From producing 2 tons of coco sugar per month with often only 50 kg left unsold, Labial now considers it lucky for them to be able to sell 800 kg per month.

Despite this, the AMCI continues to market and produce its products in order to unceasingly provide support for the coconut farmers. They are slowly able to get back on their feet. “Ang amin pong mga farmers ay aming pong sinu-sustain hindi lang ang kanilang kailangan, pati na rin ang livelihood nila na hindi maputol. Sa tulong po ng coop, dire-diretso ‘yong income nila. Hindi na sila namomroblema kung saan sila magbebenta dahil iyong coop na ang nabili. [We provide for the farmers a means for a sustainable livelihood. With the help of the cooperative, they get to have a stable source of income. They don’t have to worry about where to bring their produce because they already have the cooperative as a ready market.]”Labial shared.

A fruit of this perseverance is their new facility and display store. The project started in 2006 and was finally completed in 2021. “Dumaan sa butas ng karayom [Went through the eye of a needle,]”as she describes it, the new building is one of the legacies of the cooperative and its management. AMCI is the only group in Misamis Oriental to have received assistance from the Department of Agriculture-led Philippine Rural Development Project (DA-PRDP) supported by the World Bank, under which they were able to acquire funds for the facility and a set of new equipment for their coco sugar production. The cooperative’s coco sugar enterprise has received a widespread recognition by the DA in their region.

Labial also recognizes FSSI’s role in their cooperative’s journey. “Kung wala pong nagsimula ng production namin sa maliit, dahil po sa tulong ninyo, sa inyong pahiram, hindi rin po siguro kami mapapansin ng World Bank na kami’y mabigyan ng ganitong project. [If we hadn’t received such support for our production when we were just getting started, with FSSI’s help, I don’t think we would have been recognized by the World Bank, and we would not have been given this type of project.]

The cooperative is steadfast in acquiring other markets for their coconut products and extending support to more farmers in Gingoog. “Talagang ang challenge namin ngayon ay mahirap mag-market. [Pero] hindi po kami makatigil dahil kawawa naman ‘yong mga farmers namin, mawawalan ng trabaho. Kaya bigayan na lang kami. [What has really been a challenge for us lately is marketing our products. However, we can’t just stop because our farmers are at stake; their jobs could be jeopardized. Because of this, we do our best to understand and adjust to the struggles on both ends,] Labial said.

Coconut, indeed the tree of life, has undeniably improved the lives of the growing farmer-members of the Agay-ayan Multi-purpose Cooperative. The cooperative’s products are available in the supermarkets of SM Cagayan de Oro, Robinsons Mall Cagayan de Oro, and in their display store at Brgy. Agay-ayan, Gingoog City, Misamis Oriental. For partnerships, you may contact them through their Facebook page.

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