Brewing peace: How a coffee enterprise in Mindanao won the ‘Nobel Prize of Business’

Art Fuentes, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 19 2020 06:07 AM | Updated as of Sep 19 2020 10:53 AM

A man picks coffee cherries in a farm in Mindanao. Courtesy of Coffee for Peace

MANILA - The Oslo Business for Peace Award has been touted as the Nobel Prize of Business, and a Filipina is among this year's winners.

Felicitas Pantoja, the co-founder and CEO of Coffee for Peace, a social enterprise based in Mindanao was recently chosen for the honor together with the head of cloud computing giant Salesforce, and the chief of a major African banking group.

In terms of revenues and profits, Coffee for Peace probably can’t match the businesses of Salesforce, which is a Fortune 500 company, or Equity Group Holdings, which operates in 16 countries in Africa.

But in terms of impact in the lives of the people it serves, the dividends of Coffee for Peace may be immeasurable.

TALKING INSTEAD OF FIGHTING

The idea for the social enterprise came from a simple observation, according to Pantoja. People like to talk to each other over good coffee. And when people talk to each other, armed conflict subsides.

“Habang nagda-dialogue, kumakaunti ang barilan,” Pantoja said.

(Dialogue lessens gunfights)

Before founding Coffee for Peace, Pantoja and her husband worked in Canada for 20 years. They left the Philippines in 1986, in the waning days of the Marcos dictatorship, because her husband, Dann Pantoja, was an activist who had opposed Marcos.

In Vancouver, her husband worked as a Pastor, while she became a financial advisor. Despite finding success in her career, she said she longed for a life that had more meaning than simply managing rich people’s money.

“Baka kapag sobrang tanda na natin di na tayo makapaglingkod sa ating bansa,” she told her husband.

(When we get very old, we will not be able to serve our country)

They returned to the Philippines 20 years later in 2006 despite a comfortable life in Canada. While both of them were originally from Manila, they chose to work in Mindanao, because they wanted to understand why there was so much conflict there.

“Gusto naming intindihin bakit parating may barilan dito,” Pantoja said.

(We wanted to understand why is there so much fighting here)

They settled in Davao City where they founded the PeaceBuilders Community. Together with other peace advocates in Mindanao, they initiated dialogues between the government and rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. She recalled that back then, firefights between the military and the rebels erupted often.

“As peace workers, nandoon kami para makinig (we were there to listen).”

She said that one time, while they were participating in a dialogue in the town of Talayan, Maguindanao, the event was interrupted by gunfire and she had to hide in a banana grove.

Peace advocates in Mindanao. Courtesy Coffee for Peace

But they pushed on with their work. While representatives of the government and the rebels held dialogues, Pantoja and other peace advocates served coffee, which they bought from farmers in Pikit, Cotabato. And they noticed something.

“Skirmishes in that area went down because people were already talking,” she said.

She also noticed that many of those who were displaced by the fighting were ordinary farmers just trying to eke out a living. She saw that conflicts in certain areas were rooted in competing claims for land ownership. This was exacerbated by the poverty in these areas.

Peace would remain elusive if nothing was done to address these issues, she realized.

“So we needed a tangible product. Yung pwede ba magkaroon ng mapayapang buhay yung ating nadi-displace na farmers dahil sa barilan.”

(We needed a tangible product. How can our displaced farmers because of the conflict, have decent and peaceful lives?)

Just like in the peace dialogues they were holding, coffee proved to be the key. Pantoja said she had no wish to go into business, but she saw an opportunity to do good through it.

‘THE BEST COFFEE IN THE PHILIPPINES’

In 2006, traders would buy coffee beans from farmers at only P30 a kilo, which she said was very low. This favored the traders, but severely disadvantaged farmers.

“So ang naging contribution ng Coffee for Peace was to provide training to farmers.”

They trained farmers on how to properly process coffee so that their harvest could fetch a higher price. They also picked up produce from farms, roasted the beans for farmers who have no roasting machines of their own, packed the beans or ground coffee, and delivered these to customers.

Coffee farmers present their harvest. Courtesy Coffee for Peace

Coffee for Peace also helped farmers expand their market by exporting coffee to Canada. When professional coffee taste testers, called Q-graders sampled their batch, the rating given was a surprise.

“They said our coffee is premium quality, not yet specialty,” she said. Premium is the second-highest coffee grade, next to specialty.

“Nabuhayaan kami dun kasi, premium quality, at least mataas taas na yung presyo.”

(It was such a shot in the arm. Premium quality can command a higher price)

The coffee they exported proved to be a hit in Canada and their orders skyrocketed. They were being asked to supply as much as 50 tons of coffee to the market there. This meant that Coffee for Peace needed to scale up production.

“Kung ganun kalaki yung requirement ng market mas marami pang farmers ang kailangang ma-train.”

(That's how big the market requirement was, so we really needed to train farmers)

Coffee for Peace trained more farmers about raising further the quality of their coffee.

After Canada, they also began exporting to the United States and several other countries. But they were still relatively unknown in the Philippines, where consumers preferred instant coffee.

But gradually, the coffee produced by the farmers they helped began to get recognition from Filipino coffee aficionados.

In 2017, during the 2nd National Coffee Conference held in Baguio City, the Balutakay Coffee Farmers Association (BACOFA) ranked first in coffee quality grading. In 2019, BACOFA again bagged the top award in the recent Philippine Coffee Quality Competition. Farmers from BACOFA grow their coffee in the foothills of Mt. Apo.

Coffee for Peace has also trained 880 farmers from all over the Philippines, with even more farmers asking them for training. The organization currently maintains a coffee shop in Davao City, a post-harvest facility, a coffee processing facility, and a model farm on Mt. Apo.

Pantoja said she is happy that some of their trainees have become successful.

“Yung iba may sariling business na. Yung iba, sikat na.”

(Others have their own businesses already.. some are now popular)

But she said she gets even more satisfaction from “cascading the message of peace through coffee.”

“Hindi lang peace na absence of war but peace na relational harmony.”

(Its not just "peace absent war" but peace that transcends harmony)

Winning the Oslo Business for Peace Award came as a surprise for them, she said, as it acknowledged their hard work.

“It put a stamp on what we’re doing that we are really a business for peace.”