May Pag-asa sa Cassava: Fatima Multi-Purpose Cooperative, a women-owned and -led social enterprise

Maria Teresa Geniston, fondly called “Tess”, was a medical sales representative in 1996 when she was invited to join a newly formed cooperative in the town of Calubian in Leyte.

At the time, she was not even familiar with how a cooperative operates. However, she believed in its mission to uplift the lives of those in their community. Now, as its General Manager, she has devoted almost three decades growing and sustaining a social enterprise that makes genuine, positive impact across Leyte and nearby provinces.

An enterprise of and for the community

Fatima Multi-purpose Cooperative (Fatima MPC) started as a savings and credit cooperative in December 1996, aiming to improve the socioeconomic condition of farmers, fishermen, and other low-income groups in Calubian.

“‘Yung objective talaga ng cooperative ay ma-uplift ‘yung mga members at ‘yung community, ‘yung [makatulong] sa pangkabuhayan nila. Kasi dito maraming loan sharks, 5-6, malaki ang interest. ‘Yung mga founder, [nag-isip] sila na magtayo ng cooperative para ‘yung mga mangingisda at ‘yung farmers merong mauutangan na maliit lang ‘yung interest, [The objective of the cooperative is to uplift the lives of its members, and the community, to support their livelihood. There were many loan sharks here who offer loans at a very high interest. The founders thought of forming a cooperative so that the fisherfolk and farmers will have an alternative source of funds],” she shares.

To diversify its services and continue to respond to the needs of its members, the cooperative transitioned to a multi-purpose cooperative in 2003. The cooperative now has four branches located in Naval, Biliran island, and Palompon, Carigara, and Ormoc City in Leyte.

The cooperative in many ways has continued to respond to the needs of its community, one of which is the need for clean drinking water.

Nagkaproblema kami [noon] dito sa Calubian sa water-borne diseases. ‘Yung drinking water namin, kumukuha pa kami sa Biliran. So nagkaroon kami ng source at in-apply namin sa National Water Resources. Para naman hindi na kailangan pumunta ng mga Calubianon sa Biliran to have drinking water.” [We had problems with water-borne diseases before. We used to get our drinking water all the way from Biliran. We found a source and registered in the National Water Resources, so that Calubianons will not have to go to Biliran for drinking water.]

Venturing in the cassava value chain

Of its ventures, Fatima MPC is now focusing on expanding its cassava production and trading. Written across the wall of their cassava processing facility are the words “May pera sa cassava,” a bold statement that emphasizes the wealth of opportunities that can be drawn from the resilient crop, and a continuous challenge in changing perceptions.

Kasi sa una, ‘yung mga farmer parang negative sila magtanim ng cassava dahil matagal at hindi sila nagkakapera. Pero kapag nag-follow ka lang ng protocol sa farming from land preparation to harvest. It’s a business enterprise, at masasabi namin, may pera talaga sa cassava,” Tess says. [At first, farmers are discouraged by planting cassava because it takes time and they do not generate income. But if you just follow farming protocols from land preparation to harvest, you will see that it makes for a good business enterprise, we can really say there is money in cassava.]

The cooperative’s agribusiness in cassava started in 2010, with the push in the region to engage in the production of the crop. In the past nine years, they have been an accredited assembler of a leading manufacturer of food products in the country. From a small volume, the cooperative is now one of its biggest suppliers of cassava chips for industrial use and its lone assembler in the provinces of Leyte and Samar, giving opportunities to over 700 member-farmers who supply cassava to the cooperative.

The cooperative offers a comprehensive bundle of services to enable farmer-members to engage in agribusiness. They provide assistance from land preparation, planting inputs, weed management, harvest, to post-harvest services. Should the farmers need working capital, the cooperative provides financial assistance through loans.

Since the inception of their cassava enterprise, the cooperative has turned to its partner, the Philippine Root Crop Research and Training Center (PhilRootcrops), a research, development, and training institution for root and tuber crops, based at the Visayas State University (VSU) in Baybay City also in Leyte, for technical assistance and capacity building. The planting inputs they provide to the farmers are also from PhilRootcrops, to ensure good quality and prevent pests and diseases.

“Through the help of PhilRootcrops, mayroon silang trainings sa mga good agricultural practice. Mayroong mga bagong technology na dapat i-adopt natin as a farmer. ‘Yan ang palaging sinasabi namin sa mga farmer. Kasi gusto namin matulungan sila na maka-ahon sila sa kahirapan. Para naman ‘yung kanilang pangkabuhayan sa farming, sa agriculture ma-improve. ‘Yung iba nakasanayan ‘yung old na sistema, dapat may innovation. Halimbawa, organic fertilizer [Through the help of PhilRootcrops, trainings on good agricultural practices can be accessed by farmers. There are new technologies that we need to adopt as farmers. That is what we always tell them. Because we want to help them break out of poverty. So that their livelihood in farming, in agriculture can be improved. Some have been used to the old ways, there should be innovation, like the use of organic fertilizers],” Tess says.

Among the many farmers they have reached are the members of the Canfabi Integrated Farmers Association (CANIFA), based in Brgy. Canfabi, Carigara, Leyte. CANIFA, composed of cassava farmers, was formed in 2015. They have been a partner of Fatima MPC since 2016.

Maraming mga farmer dito na kulang sa financing. Marami silang lupa na mga bakante, pero hindi nila natatrabaho kasi kulang ‘yung budget nila [There are a lot of farmers here who lack financing. They own parcels of land but most are unproductive, because they do not have the funds to engage in farming],” says Elmer Juntilla, manager of Fatima MPC’s Carigara branch.

Nung una, tractor loan lang ang binibigay ng Fatima. Nagkakaroon ng problema ang farmers, hindi nila nakukuha ‘yung saktong yield dahil wala silang pang-finance sa weeding. Kasi magtatanim sila ng isang hektarya, malawak ‘yun, so kapag walang budget para sa weeding, walang mangyayari sa tanim, mababa ang yield. Kaya ngayon meron nang bundle of services. [At first, Fatima only provided tractor loan, but it was not enough. They cannot reach the ideal yield because they do not have enough funds to finance the weeding. So now, we have the bundle of services],” explains Elmer.

Nung time na ‘yon, naghahanap sila ng cassava so napapunta sila rito, ngayon tuwing nagbebenta sa kanila, automatic naman mag-me-member sa kanila so halos karamihan sa amin naging member nila. Ngayon naisipan namin, papano kung gusto namin magnegosyo ng cassava? Binigyan nila kami ng oportunidad na mag-dried chips kami rito then sila ang pi-pick up, kaya nagsimulang lumalim ang partnership between CANIFA at Fatima [At that time, they came here to purchase cassava, and farmers usually applied as members, so a lot of us here are already members. We thought, what if we wanted to get into the cassava business. That’s when they gave us an opportunity to process cassava and produce dried chips, which they will purchase. That’s how the partnership started to grow],” Florence Darriguez, Jr., CANIFA’s president recalls.

Ngayon dahil meron na kaming truck, kami na ang naghahatid doon, and then may bagong binibigay na opportunity ‘yung Fatima sa amin, ipapasabay nila ‘yung produkto namin sa P.O. [purchase order] nila, hihingi lang sila ng 20 centavos bawat kilo so malaking opportunity para sa amin ‘yan. Kaya sisikapin namin na kaming 37 members ay magtatanim ng cassava para suportahan ‘yung produkto namin at palakihin din ang aming negosyo.” [We now have our own truck so we now deliver the cassava [to Fatima MPC], and then there is this new opportunity being offered to us. Fatima will subsume our product under their purchase order, and they will only get 20 centavos per kilo, that is a huge opportunity for us.]

Through their partnership, the association also had the opportunity to generate more income for their members. “Dati nung wala pa kaming traktura, individual pwedeng mag-loan sa kanila ng land preparation then ang payment ay kung mag-ha-harvest na. Nitong 2020, nagkaroon ng agreement ang Fatima at CANIFA, since meron na kaming tractor, binibigyan nila ng oportunidad na kumita ‘yung association namin. Kami ang nag la-land preparation, ang Fatima ang nagbabayad [para] sa farmer, loan [iyon] ng farmer sa Fatima. Kung ilan ang abutin ng kabayaran, ‘yun ang babayaran ng Fatima sa CANIFA, pero ang farmer doon nag-lo-loan sa Fatima. Bale ang serbisyo lang ang sa amin [Before we had our own tractor, farmers can apply for a loan from Fatima for land preparation and payment will be upon harvest. In 2020, there was an agreement that we can do the land preparation, and Fatima will pay on behalf of the farmer as part of the loan. We get paid for the labor only, the farmer still applies to Fatima for the loan],” says Florence.

The biggest hurdle for the association is the lack of equipment. They have acquired a tractor through a grant in 2018, unfortunately, they lack the fund to support its maintenance. They also need a bigger tractor to increase their production. Right now, they are able to reach an average of 24 tons per hectare.

Fatima MPC buys the fresh cassava tubers from farmers at 4 pesos per kilo, meanwhile, dried cassava chips are purchased at a much higher rate of 13 pesos per kilo. Having a ready market for their produce is an important part of CANIFA’s partnership with Fatima MPC.

“Sure market. ‘Yun ang unang una. ‘Yung pangalawa, hindi mahirap lapitan, mababait ‘yung empleyado. Nakaka-avail kami ng loan kung kailangan namin, ayan sila tumutulong, para sa akin, malaking impact ‘yan para sa grupo. Kung kailangan namin ng pera, kailangan namin ng services, tumutulong sila. Hindi malayong mangyari na lumakas pa at lumago itong aming negosyo [Having a sure market, that is first and foremost. Second, they are easy to approach, the staff are kind. We can avail a loan if we need it, they are there, for me that is a big impact to our group. If we need a source of funds, services, they help us out. It is not a remote possibility that our enterprise will continue to grow],” Florence says.

Florence shares that cassava alone may not be enough to support a household for now, but it has been able to augment their income. There are also unique opportunities that only the crop can offer to the farmers.

Nagtatanim din kami ng rice, ng coconut. Pero malaking tulong itong cassava dahil kapag meron kang tanim na cassava at nagipit ka, pwede ka mag-loan, i-collateral mo ‘yung cassava mo, pwede ka mag-early harvest, ngayon kung may pera ka pa pwede mo paabutin ng isang taon bago mo i-harvest para mas lumaki pa ang laman. Dahil ang cassava ay hindi kagaya ng ibang crop, gaya ng palay o corn, na pagdating ng harvest time ay kailangan na kailangan mong i-harvest na kaagad. Ang cassava, hayaan mo, kahit isang taon at kalahati, nandiyan pa rin yan, mas lalaki lang ang laman [We are also into rice and coconut. But cassava is a big help because it offer many possibilities. If you’re in a tight spot, you can avail a loan with it as collateral, you can also do early harvest. If you have sufficient funds, you can see it through an entire year before harvest, so that the roots will even be larger. Cassava is not like other crops such as rice or corn that needs to be harvested at a certain period. With cassava, you can leave it for one and a half year and it will still be there, with even larger produce],” he added.

Pasencia Sandagan is among the members of CANIFA who had relied on cassava and other crops for livelihood. She has been engaged in cassava production for over two decades, owning two hectares of cassava farm. Apart from cassava, she has income from producing rice and copra. Through this, Nanay Pacing has sent her two children to school, one of them is now a public school teacher in their community. Her youngest is also pursuing an education degree. From her income, she has also recently put up a sari-sari store in front of their house.

In Carigara alone, Fatima MPC caters to over 150 cassava farmers.

Si Fatima ay malaking tulong sa mga farmer,” Elmer says. “Kaya kapag pumupunta kami sa bundok, [sasabihin nila na] ay, nandito si taga-Fatima. Talagang welcome ka, kasi alam nila na nakakatulong si Fatima sa kanila.” [Fatima had been a great help to farmers. That’s why whenever we come to the upland areas, they will greet us with much enthusiasm. You are really welcome, because they know that Fatima genuinely wants to help them.]

“’Yung sinseridad sa Fatima na mag-assist sa kanila na kapag meron silang lote na pwedeng taniman, we encourage them sa cassava para ‘yung household nila, ‘yung family matulungan. Halimbawa nagtatanim [ang mga magulang], ‘yung kanilang anak tumutulong sa pag-harvest at saka sa drying, chipping, and then pagpunta sa warehouse, nagtutulong tulong sila as a family. Sa harvest, pwede sila mag-chipping, hindi na sila pupunta sa ibang lugar, dito sa cassava makakaroon sila ng kita on a daily basis. ‘Yung nag-chi-chipping doon sa warehouse, in a day nagkakaroon sila ng at least minimum, mga 350 to 500 pesos. [Fatima’s sincerity to assist them to make their land productive through cassava farming to

Help their family is clear. Parents can plant cassava while children help out during harvest, drying, and chipping. They come to the warehouse together as a family. Upon harvest, they can do the chipping. They won’t have to go far. The chippers in the warehouse earn a minimum of 350 to 500 pesos a day],” Tess shares.

Such is the case for Elisa Lospe and her family. Elisa, a member of Fatima MPC, is among the 30 cassava chippers engaged by the cooperative. “Dyan lang po sa bundok ‘yung bahay namin, malapit lang. Nagtatadtad po kami ng kamoteng kahoy para sa pang araw-araw naming pangangailangan, simula po nung nagsimula sila nitong [enterprise ng cassava]. Malaking tulong po para sa estudyante namin. Dalawa po ‘yung napag-aral ko.Yung isa nakatapos na [ng kolehiyo], ‘yung isa nag-aaral pa, Grade 11. ‘Yung asawa ko, dito rin siya nagtrabaho hanggang sa nawala siya. ‘Yung anak ko rin na isa, kapag Sabado’t Linggo, nagtatadtad din siya rito para meron siyang pambaon, pang-project, pang-uniform na rin,” she shares. [We live nearby. We have been doing cassava chipping to support our everyday needs since Fatima MPC’s cassava enterprise started. This is a big help for my children. One of them already graduated college, the other is in Grade 11. My husband also worked here before he passed away. My youngest also comes here during weekends so he can have additional budget for school, for projects and uniform.]

A partner in investing in women

To date, Fatima Multi-Purpose Cooperative has around 14,000 members across its four branches, with 520 million pesos in assets. Named in honor of Calubian’s patroness, Our Lady of Fatima, the cooperative is mainly owned and composed of women.

“‘Yung Board of Directors namin ay five, and we have three women sa members ng board. [We have five board members and three of them are women.] Most of us here are women. I’ve been a manager from the start, and so far, I can say that nag-grow talaga ‘yung Fatima. Hindi lang sa mga lalaki ‘yung leadership, ‘yung mga babae din,” Tess shares. [I’ve been a manager from the start, and I can see that Fatima has really grown. Not only men had the opportunity to lead, women have been given the opportunity too.]

Due to the growing demand in cassava, the cooperative set out to expand their production and trading enterprise. In 2021, Fatima MPC became an investee under the Foundation for a Sustainable Society, Inc. (FSSI)’s partnership with Investing in Women (IW), an initiative of the Australian government. IW seeks to support women-owned and -led social enterprises through the provision of financial services and technical assistance. FSSI, through IW, was able to support the cooperative through a co-investment arrangement with its member organization, the Federation of Peoples’ Sustainable Development Cooperative (FPSDC). Fatima MPC is a member of the federation.

Nagpapasalamat kami dahil nagkaroon kami ng additional capital through FSSI and FPSDC to upgrade our cassava dryer facility, kasi bottleneck namin ‘yun sa pag-process ng cassava. Oftentimes dito sa area namin palaging umuulan and then nagkakaroon kami ng problema kasi ‘yung solar drying facility namin hindi kasya. Investing in Women ang nag-assist sa amin through financial [services] sa pag-upscale ng drying facility namin. Nakatulong ‘yung upscaled tunnel dryers dahil mas mabilis ‘yung pag-process namin. So, mabilis din ‘yung delivery namin. ‘Yung sa value chain naman, nakakatulong ito sa farmer-members namin na every time mayroon silang maraming harvest, na-pa-process agad,” Tess shares. [We are thankful for the additional capital accessed through FSSI and FPSDC which enabled us to upgrade our cassava dryer facility because it was a bottleneck in our cassava processing. Oftentimes, it would rain in the area, and we’ll have problems because our solar drying facility is not enough. It was Investing in Women that assisted us through financial services in upscaling our drying facility. The upscaled tunnel dryers really helped because it expedited our processing. So, delivery was faster too. In terms of the value chain, it also helped our farmer members because we can easily process their harvest.]

The project funded the working capital requirement of their expansion in cassava production and trading and the construction of four additional drying facilities. Prior to the expansion, the cooperative had four existing units that accommodated a total of 20,000 kgs of cassava. Drying of cassava takes around three days, thus, it takes time for them to fulfill the purchase order from their client. The support from FSSI allowed the cooperative to build another four units of upgraded dryers with a total capacity of 60,000 kgs, directly creating jobs and income opportunities for 300 farmer-members.

Apart from financial assistance, the cooperative also received capacity building support from FSSI.

To promote gender and development, Fatima MPC also assists their women members in their livelihood projects and offering working capital.

The Cooperative of the New Generation

If you ask Tess what else are in store for an accomplished enterprise such as theirs, the sheer focus and determination that allowed the cooperative to propel has never faltered.

“Focus muna sa cassava, para matulungan natin ‘yung farmer-members natin na makaahon talaga sa kahirapan, ‘yan talaga ang objective natin. Nagpapasalamat ako sa Investing in Women at saka sa FSSI, na nagkaroon kami ng opportunity na maging partner through FPSDC, na natulungan kami. Let’s continue to be partners, and then kung ano ang meron kayo, i-share ninyo sa amin. From our end, mag produce kami ng output para hindi sayang ‘yung partnership natin.” [Right now, we want to focus on cassava, so we can help our farmer-members and lift them out of poverty, that is our objective. We thank Investing in Women and FSSI, that we had the opportunity to become partners through FPSDC, and that we were able to receive support. Let us continue to be partners, share with us what you have, and in turn we will produce good outputs, so that our partnership will be meaningful.]

They have set their eyes on a new milestone in their cassava enterprise. “Ang pangarap namin actually isang B-HAG, Big Hairy Audacious Goal, ang magkaroon kami ng state of the art cassava starch factory. ‘Yan ‘yung ambition namin, step-by-step, milestone by milestone.” [Our dream is actually a B-HAG, a Big Hairy Audacious Goal to have a state of the art cassava starch factory. That is our ambition, step-by-step, milestone by milestone.]

For Tess, the cooperative’s vision is clear, “Makikita naman ninyo na nag-go-grow talaga ‘yung cooperative, at saka maraming branches, at may sustainability ‘yung kooperatiba. Gusto namin ‘yung Fatima maging, The Cooperative of the New Generation.” [You can see that the cooperative is really growing, with many branches, and it is sustainable. We want Fatima MPC to be The Cooperative of the New Generation.]

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