Sunday, September 12, 2010

What hope means to a 22-year-old

What hope means to a 22-year-old 
By Cheenee Otarra
The Manila Times

September 12, 2010

In less than a month, I will be turning 22 (although I think I am still eight years old at heart). My batch mates include, of course, Maria Venus Raj and Rihanna who were also born in 1988. So I ask myself, in my 22 years of existence, what have I done that has had a major impact on the world? If I should compare what I have done to those women up there, then I think they would not be that worth noting. However, if I should choose which things have been most meaningful to me, then it’s simple and, for me, worth remembering.

At 22, I’ve walked with farmers for at least 15 kilometers to fight for a cause.

On November 30, 2007, while a lot of my schoolmates were enjoying the long weekend, five of my friends and I went to Cabuyao, Laguna with our teacher to immerse ourselves in the presence of 55 farmers who have walked from Sumilao, Bukidnon since October 10, 2007. These farmers have walked at least 1,700 kilometers to fight for their 144-hectare land in Sumilao.

The next day, we walked from Cabuyao to San Pedro, where we woke up from an open plaza in Cabuyao at dawn and slept at San Pedro’s covered courts in the evening. Our days were spent talking, eating, singing, and more talking with the farmers. We got to understand their cause, which gave us a strong foundation to fight for these farmers.

When the farmers reached Metro Manila, we continued to walk with them from Cubao to Ateneo, to Quezon City Circle, to Malacañang. When we had free time, we slept over at their makeshift shelters outside the Department of Agrarian Reform in the Quezon City Circle. (Today, the DAR has of course put bars and grills!)

After almost six months of waiting for the decision of certain government agencies and negotiations with San Miguel Foods Inc. (SMFI), the farmers were able to get 50 hectares from the original 144 hectares, and were promised with 94 more hectares from nearby lands.

At 22, I’ve tried to help these farmers in any way I could.

Because we wanted to know how land could truly help the farmers, my friends and I embarked on a journey called the Sumilao Agri-Enterprise. Since one of the requirements of the agreement with SMFI was that the farmers would have to grow crops organically (no chemical fertilizers, no pesticides), many farmers have had difficulty producing enough corn to pay back loans, especially when traders’ prices were drastically low.

This was when my friends and I brainstormed for a social enterprise that we could start with the farmers’ main crop—corn. We remembered that one time in Caritas, during negotiations with SMFI, the farmers gave us cups of corn coffee to drink and we remembered how it smelled so good and tasted just like coffee! According to the farmers, roasting corn coffee is a traditional Higaonon practice.

Our product, Sumilao Corn Coffee, is roasted from the highest quality organic, native, and yellow corn grown in Sumilao, Bukidnon. It contains a high amount of fiber that can help in digestion and in the prevention of certain diseases. Because it is the native variety and is organically grown, customers are assured that no amount of fertilizers or crop gene enhancers is taken in with every cup. Sumilao Corn Coffee is also caffeine-free, which makes it perfect for Filipinos who (naturally) love coffee for its taste and aroma sans the caffeine.

We joined two different business plans in 2009 and won P20,000 from the British Council and P100,000 from the Business in Development Network and Philippine Business for Social Progress. During the first few months, I had to travel several times to Bukidnon so we could set up the business by training farmers on quality control and packaging. I had to be with them to supervise the quality of the product and I taught them how to pack the goods in boxes and to ship them to Manila. Our team also had to search for suppliers of equipment and packaging materials. We advertised the product to our friends to earn our first few thousands, met with consultants, and saw that there really is potential in the product.

Eventually, in May 2010, I moved back from Metro Manila to my hometown in Cagayan de Oro to focus on our business. We have produced our packs of corn coffee and delivered them to different stores. We are currently doing our best to promote Sumilao Corn Coffee and increase our sales.

At 22, I’ve learned the true meaning of hope.

One of the most important things I learned from walking and being with the farmers is the meaning of hope. Like them, I learned how to work hard for my dreams and to let God guide me along the way.

I remember them telling me that when they were still walking in Mindanao, they did not really expect that a lot of people would support them in Visayas, in Luzon, and especially in Metro Manila. They just walked for their cause—and prayed to God. And so now, I just really work hard on our social enterprise, and pray to God for guidance and strength.