By Luisa Andrea Garcia
The figures about the industry that feeds the Philippines present a picture full of ironies.
While the combined agriculture, hunting, forestry and fisheries sectors employ more than 11 million, they only account for 8.2 percent of the country’s economic output. And Filipino farmers remain poor—only reaching grade five in school, on average—and getting older, with the average age of farmers at 57.
For Elvin Jerome Laceda, something else is dragging farmers down: when selling their produce, they have to rely on intermediaries who, in the process of jacking up the prices of their crops, absorb most of the profits. Seeing that this setup puts farmers at a great disadvantage, Laceda had a light-bulb moment.
He came up with the idea of taking the “middlemen” out of the equation to make farmers deal directly with the market or even the consumers themselves. And for that, he tapped into every millennial’s potent tool: mobile technology.
The result is RiceUp (a play on the phrase “rise up”) for Filipino Farmers, a proposed mobile application that will serve as a “virtual middleman” based on its prospectus. It enables farmers to update their inventory of harvests in real time so consumers will have choices, while their clients can send them feedback.
“Local consumers are able to buy goods that are less expensive and they build relationships with the local farmers,” the app promises.
Winning sales pitch
Despite the app’s name, 22-year-old Laceda told Manila Bulletin by email that it “is not only for rice farmers but for all farmers in general,” which means it also targets high-value crops such as vegetables. RiceUp will also help restaurants, its prospectus indicates, as it enables them to scout for nearby farms with fresh produce.
The initiative aims to maximize the Filipino farmers’ profit margins. From an average monthly income of only $88 (roughly P4,000), as the prospectus indicates, RiceUp is projected to bring it up to $250.
He pitched the idea to the 3rd Great Ideas Video Competition sponsored by The Willes Center for International Entrepreneurship of the Brigham Young University (BYU) Hawaii, where Laceda is a freshman taking up BS Biology with full scholarship.
RiceUp won second place at the social category in the awarding ceremony last November 17. Laceda was the only Filipino and among the few non-business majors who competed.
RiceUp joins the ranks of similar apps introduced in some parts of the world for farm-to-market access. India has Mandi Trades, founded in 2013 by a group of computer component developers. That same year, two Jamaican app developers launched AgroCentral, described as the country’s first digital agricultural clearinghouse.
SokoNect, launched also in 2013 by a university student in Kenya, has been ranked among the top 40 innovative startups in East Africa in 2014. Before that, three Kenyan women also developed the M-Farm app in 2010.
While the Great Ideas competition seeks to find feasible business ideas, Laceda thinks of his proposal as a social enterprise to help farmers. The prospectus states the app will not charge farmers a single centavo.
For Laceda, digital technology can unlock the potential of farmers to make a profit and empower them from a grassroots level. “We will be organizing digital literacy workshops, basic financial literacy training… in partnership with other civic organization and government offices” such as the Department of Information and Communications Technology, he said.
Farming, Laceda claimed, is close to his heart. He grew up in rural Lubao in Pampanga, raised by his grandfather who toiled as a fisherman and farmer, and a grandmother who worked as a market vendor.
Prior to studying in Hawaii, Laceda took up agricultural engineering at the Bataan Peninsula State University-Abucay from 2011 to 2013. But he had to quit after losing his scholarship out of “some political issues.” At that time, he had studied different courses like agriculture economics, soil management, crop science and animal science, and he also got to “[live] with farmers in a sponsored farm.”
He got immersed into agriculture when he volunteered for his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) or Mormon Church, as a missionary from 2013 to 2015 in southern Bukidnon, Misamis Occidental and Camiguin, where he “witnessed how complicated the problem in agriculture is.”
Leading the movement
Laceda finds it a blessing to realize his dream of studying at BYU Hawaii, which is run by the Mormons—his and his grandfather’s religious affiliation upon conversion in 2005. He especially appreciates the “multicultural brotherhood” that the university espouses.
“I feel I was destined to be here and I have a special mission to serve my country and my people,” Laceda expressed. “It will equip me with skills that will make me capable of sharing, serving and blessing the lives of other people.”
But his journey to Hawaii was not easy. “We almost pawned our uncle’s house and lot just to pay for some fees that I needed to pay as my personal contribution,” Laceda said, adding that they had to borrow money from their neighbors.
Despite being focused on his studies, Laceda remains hands-on with his initiative. He already has a team to help him put up and keep up RiceUp, with the goal of finalizing the project’s structuring by December.
The team has launched a crowdsourcing campaign, with the goal of raising $8,000 (nearly P400,000), to pilot the project by January 2017 in three to five small farms in Central Luzon.
He would put half of his $2,000 (approximately P98,000) cash prize as budget money for his startup while looking for potential investors and donors. He also intends to pay all his debts.
To encourage the youth of today to take up farming, Laceda said there are also plans to partner with the government and NGOs to “gather funds for college scholarship grants to farmers’ children” to entice “more young people to take agriculture courses.”
But even without the competition, Laceda said he would still propose this innovation and advocacy as “a mission and a movement” of raising a new generation of farmers and, eventually, fermenting a new agricultural revolution aided by technology.
“It’s time to prioritize helping and serving the neglected people of our society, our dear farmers.”