Bulacan | Philippines
Peanut butter is one of our favorites for breakfast. We got so much addicted to it during the time in SouthEast Asia that Andrea started to consider opening his own peanut farm. When during a workshop organized by the Spark project we heard about a social enterprise producing peanut butter, we had no doubts it would be our next interview.
My story is connected with Gawad Kalinga, an organization I joined as a volunteer 4 years ago - says Tajen Sui. After finishing bachelor studies of English, nothing in common with business or cooking, I was wondering what I can do for this country. I’m half Taiwanese and half Filipino, I have access to both countries. At the beginning I thought the Philippines is a country full of pollution, corruption… After studying at the university and getting to know Gawad Kalinga, I had a mindset shift. I met Tito Tony [founder of Gawad Kalinga, ed.], I got to know about the Enchanted farm, I started to wonder what to do with my life. I was a professional photographer, but was it something I want to do till the end of my life? I felt something was missing. I wanted to do something about business, something about food but I didn’t have any background. At that time in Gawad Kalinga they needed somebody to manage the kitchen, so I said ok, I thought it’ s the best way for me to learn. I expected to stay for 3-6 months and then come back to Iloilo and start my own restaurant. But every day of being here I was learning so much… I extended my stay for 3 months, then next 3 months... And it’s 4 years already. It’s here where I finally opened the business. But I shifted my dreams a little bit. My previous dream of creating a restaurant was just for my ego. First Harvest is a business which unlocks other people’s dreams.
The people Tajen works with are mostly women, mothers, who for years have suffered from poverty. He is giving them hope, dignity, purpose.
I don’t want to be introduced as the founder or co-founder of First Harvest, because it doesn’t tell the whole story. I think mothers should deserve the same title if they would know the word, for them the word founder doesn’t exist. Sometimes we observe the capacity of our production facility and we say: we can only produce this much. And all the time mothers would overpass it. Every time we have massive orders and I’m worried, I talk to them and I ask them anxiously what we should do and they always say: ok, how much do you need? We will do it. It’s amazing to see people, mothers, daughters, neighbors… Everybody helps to finalize the order. And that’s the achievement. Collective impact to make everything happen.
Collective impact is possible not only thanks to those women who co-create First Harvest, but the whole Gawad Kalinga community. Gawad Kalinga is a Filipino movement which aimed at finishing poverty of 5 million families till 2024. And social entrepreneurship seems to be one of the most effective methods to achieve that goal.
Without any business background it’s very hard for me to run the business. But as Gawad Kalinga taught us: if you put people in the middle of your business model, everything will be ok. Instead of asking yourself how many jars of peanut butter you want to sell, ask how many people you want to hire at the end of the month. From that we know what has to be done.
And there is a lot to do. And learn. Tajen had no idea about opening a business, and even less about peanut butter itself.
We started without knowing much. We bought peanuts from the market, but only then we realized they are imported. We tried with local peanuts, but soon we discovered that what’s produced here is not enough. We had a lot of peanut production in the Philippines before, but it has almost disappeared, as farmers didn’t have access to those who process it. We want to empower people to plant peanuts again. One of the challenges was that we needed specific peanuts, shelled and skinned. But famers are not able to do it. They don’t have machines for it. So we changed strategy, for now we accept any peanuts, as long as they are local. We really want to encourage people to plant them. Once they are in the rhythm, it is easier to change. In this field of changemaking we are often too romantic or too ideal, we can’t do second steps till the first step is not perfect. It doesn’t work that way. What we’ve learned is that we really have to adjust, make smaller steps, half a step, as long as we go ahead.
And why peanut butter?
The official answer is that peanuts are one of the most undervalued crops in the Philippines and the world over. At the same time peanut butter has the largest market share in this country, it’s not jam or chocolate but peanut butter. We eat it every day, so the market increases with the number of people. We see the potential to make it sustainable. This is the official answer. Not official one… well, we do peanut butter because some mothers knew how to do peanut butter. When we started it we didn’t know all the official information. We only knew that mothers in the community do great peanut butter.
That was the beginning. Today they are a sustainable social enterprise, thinking about next big steps.
There are several things we want to do. One is that we want to be sure we are able to empower mothers, so that if they look for another job they are confident and able to apply for it. We collaborate with a job agency which organizes skills training. In Gawad Kalinga we define poverty not only in terms of money but also dignity and self-esteem. Power of choice. The second will be that farmers have profitable lands by engaging with us. But we don’t want them to rely on us. We want their crop to be high quality so they can work with other entrepreneurs. And last thing is that when you scale up you need efficiency, so you can sell more. In order to increase efficiency you need machines, and more machines means less people working. The problem is that if we scale up most mothers lose their job because we will buy machines… so we are at the point of scaling up but not to make it very big. We don’t want to have massive production. We want to multiply small and medium production facilities in different places in the Philippines.
To decide a specific kind of business and development model, you have to be very clear what you are working for. Money or people. Profit or empowerment.
I think it is important to know the real reason behind what you do. Intention is crucial because it drives attention, it will give you focus and right context to do things. Don’t change the world because it’s nice and fancy to do it now, you will give up very soon, when hard work comes. What keeps you going is the intention.
More about First Harvest: firstharvest.ph