With PH agriculture lagging ASEAN peers, experts pitch ‘agripreneurship’

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Cocoa butter by Cacao Davao. Cocoa butter is known for its skin moisturizing properties. From merely exporting cacao seeds five years ago, the Philippine cacao industry has steadily expanded its markets and product offerings abroad, and experts hope it can provide some inspiration to other sectors in Philippine agriculture, which lags ASEAN peers in output and productivity. InterAksyon File Photo by Romsanne Ortiguero

MANILA – Yet another survey has been released showing Philippine agriculture continues to lag other ASEAN countries, both in terms of output and competitiveness.

Despite ASEAN being a global food basket,the Philippines, as a founding member, has not been able to maximize its abundant resources.

In 2016, agriculture food trade among five ASEAN countries showed the Philippines as the only one posting a deficit, with food exports of 5.1 billion US dollars versus imports of 11 billion US dollars for a negative balance of 5.9 billion US dollars.

In terms of USD, the following ASEAN countries posted these numbers:

Thailand: exports of $42.2B and imports of $15.7B for a balance of $26.5B;
Indonesia: exports of $36.5B and imports of $17.9B for a balance of $18.6B;
Malaysia: exports of $26.7B and imports of $17.4B for a balance of $9.3B;
Vietnam: exports of $23.1 and imports of $14.5 for a balance of $8.6B.

The findings of the 2016 agriculture food trade report were presented at the first-ever ASEAN agricultural summit held in Manila.

That the Philippines was the only country that posted a food trade deficit last year shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, if one considers the fact that the country now relies on Thailand and Vietnam for rice.

Moreover, when it comes to the value of farm exports, the Philippines paled in comparison to Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The country exports only two products that are worth at least 500 million dollars – banana and coconut. This compares with 17 products for Thailand, 10 for Indonesia, nine for Vietnam and seven for Malaysia.

In the view of former agriculture secretary William Dar, “the way we deal with agriculture today is just a source of food and not an economic opportunity. Other ASEAN countries have been in an agribusiness mode.”

He underscored the need to invest heavily in the modernization and industrialization of agriculture in terms of what research and development is pointing to, and producing the right human capital from basic education, post-secondary to tertiary. “Doing the right R&D support to entrepreneurship, credit for one, infrastructure requirements. So there’s so much investment needed to really prop up modernization and industrialization.”

The hope is found in encouraging “agripreneurship” or getting farmers to think like entrepreneurs. This could become a long-term solution to poverty, according to experts.

One idea being pushed right now is for the government to look into developing and marketing potential export commodities such as rubber, carrageenan, and other high-value crops to other countries.

Cacao’s success story

The cacao industry, for example, is now exporting chocolate and tablea, having successfully promoted its products to niche markets in the United States and Australia.

A little over five years ago the Philippine cacao sector was just shipping cacao seeds.

Still, there’s a need to standardize the quality of the products being exported, said one industry leader, “so that we can build a good brand in the international market.”

Dante Muyco Jr., president of the Cacao Industrial Development Association of Mindanao, said, “while the industry is still small, it is better to set up the system . . . so when it grows big, you would not have a hard time controlling the quality of the products going of the country.”

Experts say a whole ecosystem needs to be in place in order to make agripreneurship a reality– in other words, both government and private sector have to chip in.

Senator Cynthia Villar, chair of the Senate committee on food and agriculture, listed as the most pressing issues for farmers: the lack of access to both technical expertise and cheap credit, financial literacy and farm mechanization.

They also need help getting a hold of innovative research and linking to markets, she said.

Villar said, “the prosperity will not come to pass unless we work together in improving the plight of farmers, as well as removing all the barriers that prevent them from being competitive and profitable.’

Villar said she is now working to enact the law extending the Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (ACEF) to year 2022.

The 5-billion-peso fund, which comes from the tariff collected from the farm sector’s imports, will be used for financing, training and scholarships for farm workers.