Rice farmers find relief in digital economy as prices fall

Art Fuentes, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 21 2019 12:25 PM

Online retailers BigasPh and Session Groceries try to help local farmers as a flood of imports depress grain prices. Art Fuentes, ABS-CBN News

MANILA -- Chriz Valdez took her place beside the heads of the Philippines' largest e-commerce apps at a recent entrepreneurship forum, getting the loudest applause from the audience for helping farmers earn more by eliminating middlemen.

BigasPh, which Valdez co-founded, takes orders from the provinces, including Nueva Ecija and Banaue, and delivers the grain to consumers in the capital. The staple is bought from farmers at a "fair price," she said.

Accessible online and through mobile app, BigasPh offers farmers an alternative distribution platform as a new tariff-based regime in place of import quotas pushed down prices of the staple grain.

"Ang goal naman talaga namin is to help farmers (Our goal, really, is to help farmers," said Valdez, sharing the spotlight with GCash, Paymaya, Lazada, Shopee, Grab, Angkas, Carousel, and Lalamove at a recent Go Negosyo forum

BigasPh cofounder Chriz Valdez (7th from left) joins the executives of some of the Philippines' biggest e-commerce players during the Go Negosyo summit on Sept. 26, 2019 at the World Trade Center in Pasay City. Art Fuentes, ABS-CBN News

During an interview with ABS-CBN News at the GoNegosyo forum, Valdez said that representatives of a cooperative in Nueva Ecija earlier asked if BigasPh was willing to buy their well-milled rice at P40 per kilo. 

“Of course, sabi ko (I said),” Valdez replied. She said BigasPh would not haggle if given a "fair" asking price.

Chriz Valdez, one of the founding partners of online rice retailer BigasPh at the Go Negosyo summit on Sept. 26, 2019 at the World Trade Center in Pasay City. Art Fuentes, ABS-CBN News

Session Groceries, another online retailer, expanded its delivery offerings to rice from fruits and vegetables. Like BigasPh, it takes orders online. 

“Pumasok kami sa rice ngayon dahil nagre-respond nga lang kami dun sa nangyayari sa farmers,” Session Groceries CEO Iloisa Romaraog said. 

(We ventured into rice in response to what is happening to farmers.)

Session partnered with volunteer group Rice Pinas to source the grain from cooperatives in Naujan, Mindoro Oriental and Rizal, Nueva Ecija.

Mario Lopez, a farmer from Rizal, Nueva Ecija tries to sell his harvest directly to consumers at a Rice Pinas pop-up market in Arcovia City in Pasig on Oct. 12, 2018. Art Fuentes, ABS-CBN News

Rice Pinas has been organizing weekend markets where cooperatives can deliver rice pre-ordered through the group's Facebook page. 

Last Oct. 12, farmers from Nueva Ecija brought in more than 200 sacks of rice to pop-up markets in Makati, Pasig and Taguig organized by Rice Pinas. 

A volunteer group in UP Diliman recently also organized a farmers' market where consumers can buy rice sourced directly from local farmers.

RESPONSE FROM CONSUMERS AND FARMERS

Since it started in February, BigasPh has served around 3,000 clients, many of whom have become loyal customers, said its co-founder, Reyna Enverga.

BigasPh has distribution centers in Nueva Ecija and 8 other centers in the National Capital Region. It is considering investing in a rice mill.

The platform is also in talks with a restaurant chain to handle its supply, Valdez said.

“This will ensure that our farmers will thrive and not be left behind,” she said.

Volunteers from Rice Pinas take orders for rice at a pop- up market in Arcovia City, Pasig on Oct. 12, 2019. Art Fuentes, ABS-CBN News

Session Groceries and Rice Pinas take deliveries from Mindoro Oriental and Nueva Ecija. Consumer response to farmers' markets has been positive, Session said. 

Farmers from Mindoro, meanwhile, said they were grateful after Session Groceries and Rice Pinas helped them sell their produce. 

In a series of Facebook videos, members of the Naujan farmers' cooperative said the efforts of the online retailer and volunteers gave them hope.

Rice Pinas, which has almost 300 volunteers, is also organizing more pop-up markets in Alabang, Antipolo, BGC, Makati, Mandaluyong, and Pasig, and has linked up with another farmers' group in Tarlac. 

Other online platforms like Agronegosyo, Bukid Fresh, and Uproot Urban Farms are also partnering with Rice Pinas. 

Mario Lopez, a farmer from Nueva Ecija who attended the pop-up market in Pasig, said he hopes to sell more through such events.

Farmers are used to selling rice in bulk, he said. At a pop-up market last Oct. 12, Lopez said he sold 10 of 200 sacks he brought.

Other online retailers took the delivery of the rest of the rice that was unsold.

Rice Farmer Rey Rodriguez looks out to the farm in Guimba Nueva Ecija, on September 02, 2019. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

E-COMMERCE AS A SOLUTION?

Romeo Royandoyan, executive director of Centro Saka, said the government should instead suspend the Rice Tariffication Law for 6 to 8 cropping seasons or around 4 years to allow farmers to adjust and become competitive with farmers from other countries.

“Hindi pwedeng mag e-commerce ka pero highly deregulated ang market mo. Mamatay ka, I tell you,” said Royandoyan. 

(You can't venture into e-commerce under a highly deregulated market. You'll die, I tell you.)

A 2018 report from the Department of Agriculture said farmers in Nueva Ecija spend around P12.41 to produce a kilo of palay, while farmers in Vietnam spend just P6.53, and farmers in Thailand spend just P8.85.

While the tariffs are suspended, Royandoyan said the government should support the local rice industry through seed subsidies, fertilizers, agricultural machinery, and crop insurance.

The government should also give debt relief to small farmers who till just a hectare of farmland to keep them productive and competitive compared to their Southeast Asian peers, he said.

The Federation of Free Farmers also called for special safeguard duties and anti-dumping duties on rice imports to encourage local traders to dispose of stocks and buy again from farmers at higher prices.

Agriculture Secretary William Dar earlier said that the government would raise rice tariffs to 47 percent. Last week, however, he said he would first discuss this with other economic managers. 

Royandoyan said the government should buy palay at the 2018 price of P20.70 per kilo so that farmers would not be forced to sell for as low as P7 to P10 per kilo.

The DA set the buying price of palay at P19 or P1.70 below last year’s price.

Lopez, the rice farmer, said that even at P20.70 per kilo, he still had to do odd jobs to make ends meet.

"Sana po ang tulungan kami, lalo na yung maliliit na magsasaka. Dagdagan lang po ng kahit konti yung presyo," Lopez told ABS-CBN.

(I hope they help us, the small farmers, by raising the buying price, even for just a bit.) 

The people behind BigasPh and Session Groceries acknowledge that their efforts only reach a small number of the estimated 2.4 million rice farmers in the country. 

“Hindi pa rin talaga natin nauugat yung solusyon sa problema natin,” Valdez said.

(We still haven’t gone to the root of the solution to our problem.)

For now, the volunteers at Rice Pinas hope that Filipino consumers will patronize locally grown rice.

"Siguro yun lang magandang magagawa ng Rice Pinas is magkaroon ng willing na local buyers. Buy local na tayo," said May Jane Muñoz, Rice Pinas volunteer.

(What Rice Pinas can do is encourage willing local buyers. Let's buy local.)