Advancing Equitable Livelihood in the Philippines Food System – UN Food System Summit, Independent Dialogue

On May 25th, IISLA came together to host its very first Independent Dialogue for the UN Food Systems Summit joined by an array of experts, advocates, civil society and policymakers. In preparation, we set out to construct a landscape that was both inclusive and diverse. For us, it was important to include people whose voices aren’t typically heard in food system discussions, especially at the international level. Focused on natural and organic agriculture, we invited smallholder farmers and MSMEs into small focus group discussions to hear the challenges and issues they face in the current food system and what systemic interventions they could suggest. We see them being at the epicentre of conscious innovations, working towards revolutionising the food system through sustainable means.

To build on our own knowledge and understanding of the Philippine food system, our team curated this event with the purpose to gain perspectives from all food chain actors. Four pressing topics were thought-out and put into place, these were: food production; food processing and consumption; food distribution; and rural financing. IISLA mindfully attributed each attendee to a focus group session that suited them best. An astonishing amount of planning went into conducting these discussions in an informal, transparent and inviting atmosphere for participants to speak freely. The results of these focus group discussions then formed the basis of the dialogue itself.

To kick off this momentous occasion, we had the Department of Agriculture’s Undersecretary Leo Sebastian providing us with a message on behalf of DA Secretary William Dar. In his message, he presented one of the DAs core pillars – inclusive growth. He assured us that the DA is making it their priority to incorporate farmers and fisherfolk in their policies for food system change. Asserting that they are crucial actors to support and that facilitating their livelihoods can spur economic growth within the agricultural sector. In fact, in an effort to stabilise food production systems the DA implemented a ‘Plant, plant, plant’ programme. This programme urged farmers to plant more areas by providing them with seeds, fertilizers and technical assistance. In his final words, Leo Sebastian said that the DA is “striving for a food secure landscape where no one is left behind”. It is, however, unclear as to whether the DA is seeking to improve factors of sustainability and nutrition throughout mainstream food chains.

After our message from the DA, we had Dr. Glenn Gregorio from SEARCA, one of the champions for the UN Food System Summit. Dr Gregorio presented to us his findings from SEARCAs very own UN Independent Dialogue on transforming agricultural education and research. He informs us that everybody has a role to play in conceptualising, designing and implementing food and nutrition system innovations. To transform the system there must be a balance between economic, social and environmental concerns. Issuing that, civil society, the state and the market all play a crucial role in change within the food system. He urges for the promotion of responsible consumption and production through societal education. SEARCAs key strategy in food system change is to promote initiatives that increase production efficiency and income diversification across the value chain.

Before we broke out into small breakout sessions, IISLA’s Founder and CEO, Jennifer Viloria, presented to the participants an analysis of the situation of the food system in the Philippines based on the focus group discussions, backed by the extensive research that our team has been unearthing over the past few years. To read our working papers on the Filipino food system, click here. A whole hour dedicated to break out sessions was followed by a plenary discussion where all participants were invited to comment and interact with one another. Overall, it was a fruitful dialogue with a lot of action points for all stakeholders involved. IISLA now hopes that as we convey the result of this important dialogue to the UN, that they will be considered and finally put the smallholder farmers and MSMEs at the heart of all initiatives.

Rural Development Beyond Microfinance: A Summary

by Jennifer Viloria

Halfway through the preparation for this month’s IISLA Forum, the Philippines was struck with a catastrophic storm, Typhoon Ulysses, internationally known as Typhoon Vamco. The flood caused 46,000 families to be displaced in my home province of Isabela and the adjoining province of Cagayan Valley. Because of this, we thought of delaying the forum altogether to give farmers and cooperatives a chance to participate as soon as they have recovered.

However, we decided to push through because ironically, funding is the most important component when it comes to rehabilitation and full recovery particularly in the agricultural sector which was badly affected. We pushed through with the event because we have to design better sources of funding needed to make farming more sustainable and inclusive than what it currently is. It is now more pressing to produce enough food for our people.

Last November 17, 2020, IISLA was joined by friends and panelists Carlomagno Aguilar of Organic Growth, Ericson Atanacio of Terra Verde Ecofarm and Resort and DTI GoNegosyo, Louie de Paula of Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation, Inc., and Christine Violago of Grameen Foundation.

Imelda Canuel, Development Consultant, served as moderator. She starts by showing the results of an online poll which included relevant questions such as whether the audience has engaged in microfinancing before, in what capacity, and what the biggest challenges for funding farmers currently are.

Imelda proceeds to introduce me as the Founder and CEO of IISLA. I share with the panelists and with the audience the key points of the desk research recently conducted by IISLA about microfinancing. 

Here are some of the key insights in my presentation:

  • there is no shortage of capital in the financial system. Capital just doesn’t flow to rural areas, especially to smallholder farmers
  • the framework of the world’s global capital flow is multi-layered, and 
  • the framework of the flow of credit in agriculture in the Philippines is also multi-layered and very complex, barring farmers direct access to it

The panelists all agreed that along with the inaccessibility of capital are many on-the-ground challenges including lack of sufficient information to assess the risk profiles of farmers, their weak credit absorption capacity, and most of all, their limited cash flow to pay the loans given their high level of indebtedness. There was a call for a debt moratorium for farmers from one of the panelists.  Education beyond farming techniques is also needed to help farmers understand these challenges and equip them with financial skills beyond basic financial literacy to include better understanding of other sources of capital . They also need to adapt to new technologies for better yield, and a stronger policy framework with proper implementation has to be designed in order for them to have access to capital which they need to sustainably feed not just their families but all of us.

Carlomagno Aguilar, Founder and CEO of Organic Growth, agrees with this assessment. He says, financing in the Philippines has “a lot of layers, and with all those layers, there’s nothing left for the farmers.” He also cites that some cooperatives and foundations who receive funding for farmers just keep it for themselves. Carlo says even he wasn’t aware that there are global funds for farmers. Education and access to information has to be strengthened for information to reach them.

Ericson Atanacio of Terra Verde Ecofarm and Resort and ambassador of DTI Go-Negosyo’s Kapatid Agri-Mentor Program agrees with Carlo. He jokes that farmers have to be eliminated, and replaced with agripreneurs because “they don’t know what they need and they don’t know what is very accessible to them.” His own efforts include educating farmers in accessing finance. While he thinks that farmer loans should be non-collateralized, he also recognizes that farmers are considered high risk and will pose a problem when it comes to investor interest. He also keys in on one simple problem overlooked: the lack of acceptable government IDs. Loans usually require at least one ID.

Louie de Paula, Head of MSME Community Loans and Micro-Agri Loans for the Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation, Inc. says that the discussion highlights what is happening in the credit framework right now. He cites, “most of the time, farmers are dedicated to farming activities. They don’t have much time to spend outside labour. That’s why we need to innovate our approach,” he says. On his part, he handles micro entrepreneurs who want to acquire assets for their business. The foundation offers them low interest rates.

Christine Violago, Country Director for Grameen Foundation, takes care of programs particularly in mobile agriculture and financial services, including women-linked initiatives. She is aware of the struggles, particularly of women in farming households. Christine says, “I think one of the things we realised is that our farmers are also ageing…and because these farmers are elderly, they’re not fast learners of the digital trends that are happening.”

All of the panelists answer questions raised by the audience.

The event ended with my call to action to help relief operations in Isabela and the Cagayan Valley.

IISLA Partners with Numbers with Matter PH

In 2016, Gina Lynn Valdez, a certified public accountant, started volunteering at Gawad Kalinga (GK) Enchanted Farm on weekends. With her skillset, she helped out in the bookkeeping of a social enterprise. For the next few months, while treading between her full-time job and volunteer work, Gina began questioning if she wanted to be in a corporate job for the rest of her life. The clear answer is  no. She decided to quit her corporate job and join GK Enchanted Farm full-time.

Working in an incubation hub for start-ups, Gina saw a common pattern among the other enterprises holding their residence in the farm. While social entrepreneurs were natural salesmen and marketers, they seemed to have difficulty with financial management. “What was lacking was an accounting and finance function. There was so much effort and resources being wasted, and many times, they would end up losing money and people,” Gina said.

This is not an uncommon scenario. Managing finances is one of the main reasons startups and social enterprises fail to scale. As a consequence to not being adept in cash handling, entrepreneurs cannot give the necessary reports to grantees and investors despite the social impact or profit generated by the business. “Whenever I produce a report, I get blank stares. Sayang (too bad), because the dream for any entrepreneur is really to scale up their business.”

In 2017, social enterprises started approaching her to outsource their accounting and bookkeeping needs. In 2019, Gina finally admitted she was ready to open an enterprise herself.  With the help of the management team of GK Enchanted Farm, she then officially founded Numbers That Matter PH.

Numbers That Matter PH, she realized, was a finance service intervention for social entrepreneurs. They offer outsourced accounting services, systems integration and improvement, cash flow management, and financial education to entrepreneurs, letting them realize that it is not just about having a good, profitable product.  It is also about having a sound financial position and management system.

Gina and IISLA’s Founder and CEO Jennifer Viloria met at the GK farm as well, volunteering in the same year. The two entrepreneurs connected because of their common finance background and mutual projects. “When Jennifer and I first met, I was quite happy, because I found someone who understands the importance of a good financial model in order to responsibly allocate resources where they should be allocated.”

IISLA and Numbers That Matter PH will be partnering for a new program that puts the spotlight on understanding and, ultimately, evaluating social impact vis-a-vis financial sustainability and conscious investment.  Through the said collaboration, impact investment in the Philippines is expected to take a promising leap.

The collaborative engagement between IISLA and Numbers That Matter PH will be launched in 2021. Check back on the blog for the official announcement.

Inclusive Innovations: A Summary

by Johanna Michelle Lim

Inclusive Innovations is one of two same-day, back-to-back events hosted by IISLA Ventures last October 6, 2020. The event relaunched IISLA Ventures to chosen partners, collaborators, and stakeholders in the social impact community. 

It shared IISLA Ventures’ philosophy, theory of change, vision and mission, and its reasoning behind why the social enterprise chooses to focus on rural development. 

The program was as follows:

As an IISLA Ambassador and CEO of Dual Story Brand Strategy & Communications, I moderated the event and opened the program by sharing the event’s purpose. I shared that IISLA Forum is a series of digital and on-the-ground events that educates and connects changemakers for rural development. A video reveal of the new IISLA Ventures logo was played, followed by IISLA’s institutional video, and introduction of the main speaker.

Jennifer Viloria, Founder and CEO of IISLA Ventures, shared that the reason behind the change in identity was the deepened understanding of the company’s purpose which they reexamined during the pandemic. Whereas IISLA used to stand for “Inclusive Investments in Sustainable Livelihood and Aspirations,” it is now “Inclusive Innovations in Sustainable Livelihoods and Aspirations” because Viloria now believes creating the change that IISLA is striving for is not just a matter of investment.

Viloria goes on to share her life story, which also answers the question why the social enterprise has chosen rural development as the main focus. 

The Founder and CEO grew up in Isabela, a quiet rural town in the Philippines. At 17, she moved to the UK to join her mother who worked as a waitress in London. Viloria shares that opportunities were difficult to come by then. She had to persevere to finish a degree in Financial Economics and became the first Filipina to be hired by a British investment bank as a global equity analyst in London. 

Viloria eventually became an angel investor, part of her self-empowerment process as an entrepreneur. She was one of the first angels in Aduna, a UK social enterprise start-up that transformed rural communities in Africa, and co-founded Inspired Ventures, a travel tech company that connects donors with rural community beneficiaries through a crowdfunding platform. The latter would eventually become certified as a B-Corporation under Viloria’s stewardship as a CEO. 

She would eventually go back to the Philippines and meet like-minded individuals like Bam Aquino, the Lopez Family of ABS-CBN, and Gawad Kalinga. It was during her stint in the Philippines that she co-founded Calaboo,  the enterprise that created premium dairy products from buffalo milk.

Viloria goes on to explain IISLA Ventures’ core values, services, and focuses. (Go to https://iisla.world/ventures/ to find out more.), and ends by highlighting the missing gap for SMEs and the solution IISLA has to bridge it.

As moderator, I  introduced Henry James Sison, Co-founder and CEO of AgroDigital PH and Dr. Glenda Antonio, Founder and CEO of Spring Rain Global.

Sison points out that farming is one of the poorest sectors in the economy. He agreed with Viloria that agriculture is a high risk, long-term, and low-return sector when it comes to capital. Capital is hard to come by when you are a farmer. Sison pointed out that investment is needed to mend the broken food system. He ended by saying that the future of agriculture will lie in equipping farmers in the digital age. He hoped IISLA can empower more enterprises. 

Dr. Antonio highlighted the importance of building an ecosystem with aligned values. She says building an “ecosystem for good” is not about letting everyone think the same way but rather putting value in everyone’s role within the system. She also cites that the higher purpose of capital is not depleting assets but growing them. This is where conscious leadership, consciousness within the culture and management are important. As a strategic partner to IISLA, Spring Rain Global aims to form that ecosystem for good funded by philanthropy.

Testimonial givers Jeannie Javelosa, Winston Lim, and Konstantinos Mammasis followed. The three are collaborators of IISLA in various projects. 

Javelosa, Founder of Great Women and Co-Founder of Echo Foundation, remembers her struggle as a social entrepreneur. She was always caught between vision-building and operationalization. Javelosa says IISLA’s CEO Viloria “gave the cold hard facts”, and was instrumental in making her vision for Great Women a viable investment proposition. 

Lim, Founder of Light in Me Foundation, confirmed and agreed with Viloria that, as an investor, he agrees that the short-term, high return environment is perpetuated by many investors. He says IISLA was a way to invest in something long-term with positive impact in marginalized communities. He invites other investors to invest in growing an ecosystem, which is quite different from the normal financial investment environment. 

Mammasis, the Founder and CEO of Of Dreams and Knowledge in Greece, the creator of the Milestone brand of nutraceutical oils, describes how Viloria believed in his vision in 2014 and provided him with seed capital as well as much-needed mentorship and advisory since then.  To date, Milestone has many awards from various institutions around the world.

The program ends with exclusive announcements on potential opportunities to partner with IISLA.