LONDON— Mark Sultan Gersava grew up in poverty, one of 12 children of a slash-and-burn subsistence farmer in the southern Philippine province of Sultan Kudarat.
Today he is the “chief executive farmer” of a company aimed at tackling that same poverty, and combating climate change at the same time.
His firm Bambuhay helps farmers shift from slash-and-burn agriculture, which accounts for about a third of deforestation in the Philippines, to growing bamboo, now in demand as an alternative material to throw-away plastic.
The company, now in its second year of operation, makes popular bamboo straws, toothbrushes, tumblers and bamboo-based charcoal briquettes, to replace those made of wood.
So far Bambuhay has sold nearly 400,000 reusable bamboo straws, Gersava said.
This week, wearing a bamboo salakót, a traditional farmers hat, he told delegates to the One Young World conference of youth leaders in London what drove him to launch his company.
“In the span of one year, I experienced 2 super typhoons (and) the hottest measured temperature in Philippines history," Gersava said.
"This was the first time I had faced the direct consequences of climate change,” he said.
LESS POVERTY, FEWER EMISSIONS
Gersava settled on bamboo—a fast-growing plant that absorbs large amounts of climate-changing carbon dioxide and can help prevent soil erosion—as a way of taking action on both climate change and poverty.
The Philippines climate, he said, is perfect for growing the giant grass and has helped poor farmers "become agri-preneurs."
The effort has helped cut extreme poverty for thousands of farmers so far, he says.
“Bamboo is a symbol of poverty in the Philippines. If you live in a bamboo house, you're very poor—that's basically how it was before," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"But bamboo now has gained a lot of good attention since I started the company,” he said.
Bambuhay has partnered with the Philippine government and farmers to replant 540 hectares of deforested land through the company’s Bamboo AgroForestry Program, Gersava said.
Just how versatile bamboo fiber can be was evident in the entrepreneur's own attire at the conference, including a sleek bamboo wallet and his cone-shaped hat, a golden salakót.
Such hats are usually made from reeds, but his was produced by farmers from bamboo—a gift in gratitude for his help in pulling them out of poverty, he said.
“When I wear this hat, I feel connected to the farmers. They are the one who are left behind,” Gersava said.
“They are the most important people that we need to protect... We need to value these people more.”
Last year, Gersava sold his condominium unit, quit his job and with no formal business training and just P100,000 in start-up funds launched Bambuhay, his social enterprise.
“It's very hard to start a business in the Philippines," he said.
“There’s no support from the government, you have very limited funding... I started with only one person.”
Now Gersava employs 17 full-time staff. He says as CEO his aim is not to become rich but to ensure much of what the company earns passes to its farmers.
Still, in addition to helping farmers, he's been able to help pay college fees for his 2 nieces and support his siblings and parents, he said.
He says his work is far from done. By 2030, he aims for his company to have helped establish 1 billion bamboo plants and to have lifted 100,000 farmers out of poverty, especially in extremely poor areas such as his hometown and the province of Sulu.
Growing up in an impoverished family in Sultan Kudarat, he said, has given him a deep understanding of who pays the highest price as climate change impacts, from floods and droughts to heatwaves and storms, intensify.
“The wealthy CEOs and politicians are not the ones suffering the most from the consequences of climate change. It is the rural villager," he said.
"It is the struggling farmers who are suffering from severe water shortages and droughts that will be the worst hit by food insecurity,” he predicted.
To battle both poverty and climate change, "we cannot continue with business as usual," he said.
"We must continue to innovate, to protest and to hold government and companies’ feet to the fire," he said in a speech at the conference.