Invisible no more

In a province in the southern Philippines, three elderly women farmers are proving that, indeed, women are indispensable contributors to agriculture and the economy

Juanita Celiz, 49, Candelaria Dumale, 65, and Merlinda Go, 52, tend to vegetables that they are raising in gardens for home consumption and for selling. “Sarili mong tanim, alam mong safe kainin [You know the food is safe if you plant it yourself],” says Merlinda. The three elderly women from Barangay Luhib in Lake Sebu in South Cotabato are active advocates of healthy eating and of farming. And although they admit that their years are rapidly advancing, they do not use age as an excuse to slow down. In fact, they see their “senior years” as motivation to better their lives as well as those of their fellow women farmers in their community.
This is laudable particularly in the light that many agriculture-based countries – including the Philippines – still look at women as no more than farm assistants. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that, sadly, women farmers’ contribution to food production remains “undervalued if not invisible”.

The three friends, however, says that they have not always known about the benefits of growing their own vegetables. A few years back, Juanita, Candelaria, and Merlinda, along with other women members of their barangay (village), attended training on proper nutrition provided by an NGO. It is during one of the training sessions that they realized they were unwittingly ingesting harmful substances from the food they bought from the market.

“Wala akong kamalay-malay na nilalason ko na pala ang sarili ko [I was not aware that I was poisoning myself],” says Merlinda. She was referring to pesticide-laced vegetables and other food products that are sold in public markets.

“Doon na lang ako sa traditional at sarili naming tanim. Siguradong safe na, puwede pa pagkakitaan [I will just stick with traditional and home-grown crops. They’re not just safe, I can earn from them as well],” she adds.

The three women farmers saw an opportunity to further their knowledge and benefits from farming when the FAO project “Dynamic Conservation and Sustainable Use of Agrobiodiversity in Traditional Agroecosystems of the Philippines” came to their community. FAO is is co-implementing the initiative with the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Agricultural Research (DA-BAR) with funding provided by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).
Under the project, the three, along with 25 other women coming from the project’s five pilot barangays, were organized to form the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women and Farmers Association (LASIWFA).

During one of the community engagement activities, the project team discovered that tomato farmers are just dumping their produce on the side of the road because of low selling price, which is not even enough to cover production and transport costs. To address this, the project conducted a market and value chain study of tomatoes and other agrobiodiversity products in the area. The study found that processing tomatoes into candy could potentially earn a farmer as much as PHP 1,015 per crate compared to only PHP 200-400 per 20 kg crate of fresh tomatoes.

This finding did not come as a surprise to Juanita, Candelaria, and Merlinda who have been making tomato candies prior to the project, apart from vegetable farming. However, the study encouraged them to take this business opportunity further. To this end, the project provided them and others in their community relevant trainings on organizational strengthening and for the enhancement of their entrepreneurial skills.

With the support of the Provincial Local Government Unit (PLGU) of South Cotabato under then-governor Daisy Avance Fuentes, and through the facilitation of the Provincial Planning and Development Office, LASIWFA was given the opportunity to acquire a dehydrator – a machine that could be used to process the community’s native crops into food products – as well as construct a processing facility. There was a caveat, though: the association had to provide a place to install the equipment and processing facility in. Problem was LASIWFA did not have land for this purpose nor the funds to acquire such.

Undeterred, Juanita, Candelaria, and Merlinda pooled their personal resources together to acquire a parcel of land in the barangay for the dehydrator. Together with Jelly Suriaga, another farmer from the same village, they were able to raise PhP 90 000 from their farm earnings to buy the piece of land for the dehydrator and the processing facility.

However, some naysayers were quick to dismiss their efforts, saying that the project is doomed to fail. Juanita was just as quick to dispel this, saying “kung hindi matuloy, at least may investment [Even if it doesn’t push through, we’ll have this as investment].”
The “investors” explained that they did so because they believe the dehydrator can open up livelihood opportunities for the current and future generations of women in their community, especially those from the T’boli tribe.

“Kailangan lang nila ng konting alalay. Nagsimula din po kasi kami sa wala [They just need a little help. We also started from nothing],” Merlinda emphasized.
The three already have their ideas of what food products to process. They initially listed chili, mushroom, and ube powders, as well as candied fruits and vegetable-based ketchups. They have also visited a number of Negosyo (Business) Centers and Pasalubong (Souvenir or Gift) Centers as potential outlets for their products.

The trio, however, admit that it will be the younger generation of women farmers/processors who will ultimately benefit from the dehydrator and the processing facility that they started. “Hindi na din naman kami bumabata. Hindi habang-buhay kami puwedeng magsaka [We are not getting any younger. We can’t farm forever],” says Candelaria.

While they still have energy, enthusiasm, and strength, however, the three friends promise to continue to help their community realize its collective vision of progress and development.

This dream came closer to reality after the processing center was officially turned over to LASIFWA on 3 March 2020 by Governor Reynaldo S. Tamayo, Jr. With this, the association may now avail of soft loans to improve their enterprise as well as opened up market linkages to bigger supermarkets in Koronadal City. The PLGU also supported additional improvements to the processing center, including the enhancement of the wall paints and provision of chairs.
To date, LASIWFA has been able to access PhP 2 million for five barangay-based processing centers, as well as two dehydrators.