Investment banker turned organic farmer fights hunger in rural PH 1

Investment banker turned organic farmer fights hunger in rural PH

Aneth Ng-Lim

Posted at Mar 08 2021 11:12 AM

Today, on International Women’s Day, let me turn the spotlight on New York banking community’s loss which became Capiz’s farming livelihood gain, and now a feeding program savior to thousands of Filipino families in rural areas devastated by economic loss from the COVID-19 crisis.

Ayesha Vera-Yu studied biochemistry with the aim of becoming a doctor. 

“In my internships, I realized that I didn’t enjoy the lab and hospitals depressed me. So while figuring out my next step, I went to a temp agency. My first placement happened to be a French bank called BNP Paribas.”

She must have impressed the banking gods even as a temp for she was offered a permanent post after a month, and scholarship for accounting and corporate finance courses in New York University. That led to a steep career rise that landed her a Direction position handling multi-billion landmark deals involving mergers and acquisitions (M&A), buyouts and recapitalizations.

Investment banker turned organic farmer fights hunger in rural PH 2
Ayesha Vera-Yu of ARK or Advancement for Rural Kids uses organic farming to help feed children. Handout photo

From banker to farmer

But in 2006, she received an invitation she could not refuse. 

“At the height of M&A activities in 2006, my Mom asked me to invest in the family farm in Capiz. I said yes because it is hard to say no to my mom, and also because it was an opportunity for me to learn how to restructure and operate, activities I couldn’t do at the bank,” recalls Yu.

Three years later, Yu left her banking career for good when she set up ARK, or Advancement for Rural Kids. 

“It was my foray into farming that led me to discover my love for organic farming and to create ARK. I realized then that my neighbors who were farming chemically were stuck in a structural bind. The pesticides they used rendered the soil dead and left farmers only one crop to farm - either rice or corn. For this crop and in every village, there is only one buyer. Lastly, there is no other market in the village. No one is investing in them. It is no wonder farmers are struggling to feed their kids and keep them in school,” relates Yu. 

In her more than a decade of banking work, Yu learned that she enjoyed studying businesses and industries and coming up with solutions and structures to fund their dreams. She honed skills in the areas of diligence, analysis, getting buy-in and sharing a company’s story. And all these she put in play when she transformed their family farm from chemical to organic, and from farming only rice to integrating animals, vegetables and orchards, creating a regenerative, holistic, close loop system. 

She also retooled their market from traders to end-consumer, and most impressive of all, at least to me, she changed the labor practice, from sharecropping to making farmers part of a corporation with secured daily wage, revenue share, access to healthcare and continuing education.

Building the ARK with P2.50

After all these, the stage was set for ARK. 

“What made me decide to focus on ARK and quit investment banking were the results of our pilot. In the vegetable and protein-based ARK Lunch, we were getting kids back to school, solving hunger and malnutrition and buying 100 percent from parents and the community, creating a much-needed new market in the village. It was structured so that there is an exit for ARK and for the community to fund it all on their own.”

ARK is a P2.50-day school lunch program served to all students every day they come to class. The children are served fresh and organic vegetables and protein, grown in the school garden and in their parents’ backyard. 

While there are feeding programs aplenty in the country, this one is unique because it buys from parents of the students, creating a whole new economy, and in just 3 years, the program will be sustainable and 100 percent paid for by the parents.

What Yu and her team are doing with ARK resonates so well with this year’s International Women’s Day theme: 'Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World'.

“Creating an equitable and sustainable world is at the core of ARK. You cannot make an equitable world if there is hunger and it is causing kids to drop out of school. It’s also hard to make an equitable world if one does not invest in those who need it most like farmers and fisherfolk in the Philippines and developing world who feed the world,” explains Yu.

Fighting Back COVID-19 with Feed Back

Then COVID-19 happened and schools were closed. It could have been the end of ARK but the team quickly pivoted and created a community-wide solution with the launch of the Feed Back program.

Due to the strict community quarantine guidelines, farmers could not sell their harvest and fisherfolk could not fish. 

“Feed Back was introduced as a neighborhood-based vegetable exchange that guarantees a market for families to bring in their vegetables for 8 weeks. To join, families commit to bring a minimum of 3 vegetables to the Feed Back market. In ‘exchange’ or what they get in return is their fair share of over 20 vegetables that other neighbors contributed to the program. As added bonus, families also get raffle tickets that value their vegetable contribution and give them a chance to win a prize every week for 8 weeks,” describes Yu. 

“Feed Back also gets families to generate excess which they bring to the Feed Back exchange during the 8-week timeframe or sell to their neighbors, nearby villages and towns. The excess is also used in their new food ventures,” adds Yu.

Thanks to Feed Back, Traciano, a farming community in Capiz, had no hunger season for the first time in decades. For the fishing communities of Bogtong, Borac, Sto Niño and Turda in the island of Busuanga, it is the first time that families are farming in a big way and in their backyards.

New Philippine Import: Sustainable Feeding Solutions

As we brace ourselves for a longer quarantine, the sustainable models presented by ARK give us hope.

According to Yu: “Our solutions are not hand-outs. They are designed to be self-sustaining and lasting. With Feed Back, families are securing their food for life. Communities are sourcing all their food needs from within. It sets up families and communities with excess and new paths that will draw investment and lead to new industries.” 

“Given that 1 out of every 5 Filipinos experienced hunger through this pandemic, we are determined to share our solution throughout the Philippines. This year, we want to enable 70 communities or 30,000 families to solve hunger and secure their food for life all on their own.” 

Yu dreams of importing this model from the Philippines to the rest of the developing world. 

“We will be building capacity and honing our solution so we can share Feed Back with other communities in the developing world. To make our dreams happen, we want to partner with like-minded individuals, corporations and foundations in the Philippines and around the world who are tired of hand-outs, who believe in the agency and incredible will, ingenuity and hustle of farmers and fisherfolk, and who truly want to create an equitable future.” 

With my nearly two decades of work in consumer and corporate banking, I could not help but ask Yu if she has any regrets about turning her back on a high-profile banking career.

“There are many bankers. Life is too short. I want to put my time, energy and heart on a venture where I can make the most impact in advancing people’s lives. In ARK, I use all the skills as an investment banker. What I became is a social impact innovator and investor. I lead ARK with the aim of achieving impact. I co-invest alongside rural communities. Depending on the program, my partners are the village heads, school heads, teachers and parent leaders. We help structure solutions using guiding principles that solutions must be sourced locally, be executed by the community, be affordable for the community, and must be tracked or assessed for its impact. As a partner with access to the world outside the village, my and ARK’s value add is to tell that community’s story and draw other investors alongside us to fund their dreams and track the impact.” 

In celebration of National Women’s Month, and to honor more women like Ayesha Vera-Yu who has been recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader and received program funding from Facebook and Google among others, this column will be dedicated to showcasing women driving an equal future for the rest of March.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.