Innovation and malasakit: How San Miguel's pandemic response efforts helped farmers bring food to our tables

Published November 14, 2021, 6:14 PM

by MB Lifestyle

After the lockdown cut off farmers’ access to markets, San Miguel rolled out programs to preserve harvests, increase farm incomes, and create sustainable opportunities in food production

When Luzon was placed under enhanced community quarantine in mid-March 2020, among the first voices heard from the private sector was that of San Miguel Corporation (SMC) president and chief operating officer, Ramon S. Ang. Recognizing the sense of uncertainty that had begun to well up in the hearts and minds of Filipinos, RSA gave assurances that SMC’s food unit, San Miguel Foods, had enough inventory to manufacture food for distribution to all Filipinos for months on end.

Thus began the largest food distribution program in SMC’s 131-year history and perhaps the country’s. Fueled by malasakit, the core value that runs deep throughout the company, SMC donated more than half a billion in food aid composed of rice, bread, canned goods, fresh poultry, flour, biscuits, dairy products, and coffee, among others, in just a matter of months.

Apart from providing food relief for disadvantaged sectors, SMC worked to ensure the continuous supply of food for the public by ramping up production of goods to quickly replenish emptied grocery store shelves.

Kadiwa Ni Ani at Kita stalls were set up in strategically located Petron gas stations throughout Manila to help farmers sell excess produce.

The company also deployed rolling stores to different barangays around the metro, and launched an online marketplace to make food easily accessible, and help lessen foot traffic at stores and public markets. SMC also utilized its network of Petron gas stations as distribution points for food products, while its expressways remained open to ensure the efficient flow of essential goods.

But despite all these efforts, SMC knew that food security in the time of a pandemic could not be assured without helping the most critical sector of all: the country’s farmers, on whom everyone depends on for food supply.

With limiting restrictions shutting down markets and transportation, farmers were left with a surplus of fruits and vegetables that either had to be thrown away or sold at a loss, forcing them deeper into debt and poverty.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our lives in many ways, but the one thing prevailing within the San Miguel Group is a sense of purpose and commitment to help. Through meaningful partnerships and initiatives aimed at supporting the agricultural sector, particularly the farmers who provide our food, we can help our country and many of our fellow Filipinos weather the many impacts of the pandemic,” Ang said.

Building new markets

One of the first steps SMC took was to support the Department of Agriculture’s “Kadiwa Ni Ani at Kita” program, allowing farmers to sell excess produce at pop-up stores in strategically located Petron gas stations.

Aside from providing farmers with space wherein they could sell their excess produce, these outlets also made healthy and affordable food products accessible to consumers.

SMC also opened its third community center under its flagship “Better World Communities” program, which utilizes unused company properties and, with the help of non-profit organizations, turns these into community centers that address the most critical needs of various sectors.

SMC’s Better World Diliman has helped some 4,500 farmers by selling over 830,000 kilos of fruits and vegetables

In cooperation with Rural Rising PH, SMC opened Better World Diliman, a hub and marketplace for fresh, excess produce—bought at better-than-farmgate prices from farmers from Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya, Isabela, Benguet, Ifugao, and the Mountain province—and sold to consumers, resellers, and donors at much lower prices.

Since its opening last July 2020, Better World Diliman has helped some 4,500 farmers by selling over 830,000 kilos of fruits and vegetables.

Meanwhile, through the establishment of community markets, SMC was able to help farmers broaden their earning potential.

The San Miguel Market in Sariaya, Quezon

Recently, SMC opened the San Miguel Market in Sariaya, Quezon to boost the livelihoods of farmers and fisherfolk relocatees at its model sustainable housing community, San Miguel Christian Gayeta Homes. Currently, vendors consist primarily of residents and locals who sell fresh fruits, vegetables, rice, seafood, and meats.

SMC will expand the San Miguel Market to 10,000 sqm. to accommodate more local sellers

The company plans to expand the market to 10,000 square meters to accommodate more local sellers. Eventually, SMC envisions it to become a wholesale market or “bagsakan center” for fresh goods from all over Southern Luzon.

Circolo, SMC’s second community market in Cabuyao, Laguna, allows farmers and other small businesses to sell their goods, rent-free for six months

SMC’s second community market, Circolo, sits on an unused 4,000-square-meter company property in Cabuyao, Laguna, right in the middle of a high-traffic and bustling industrial and residential area in the cities of Sta. Rosa and Calamba. Here, farmers and other small businesses can sell their goods rent-free for six months.

There are currently 26 vendors selling coffee, fruits and vegetables, plants, bicycles, and assorted food and non-food items.

Developing innovative milk packaging

At the onset of the pandemic, it wasn’t just farmers planting crops who were affected by restrictions. Dairy farmers, especially carabao milk producers, were also hit hard and were left with no choice but to dump fresh milk that they had no way of selling or moving.

Through the Philippine Carabao Center (PCC), SMC stepped in and bought thousands of liters of excess pasteurized carabao’s milk from the Nueva Ecija Federation of Dairy Carabao Cooperatives. The company then donated the milk to some 5,000 beneficiaries, including children, the elderly, and medical front-liners from Pampanga, Bulacan, Navotas, Manila Malabon, Cavite, Quezon, City, San Juan, and Mandaluyong.

A sample of SMC’s carabao’s milk packaging.

SMC also made a promise to the dairy farmers that it would utilize the expertise of its packaging unit, San Miguel Yamamura Packaging Corp., to develop a better packaging format that could extend carabao’s milk shelf life and improve its marketability.

SMC made good on its promise as about a year later, it introduced to dairy farmers the new packaging format which uses “retort” technology. The process allows fresh carabao’s milk to be sterilized in aluminum cans without the need for preservatives and extends its shelf life to up to six months. Previously, carabao farmers would utilize flexible packaging that could only maintain the milk’s quality for a maximum of seven days.

SMC, through its packaging unit, developed a packaging format for carabao’s milk to extend its shelf life.

Today, through the PCC, dairy farmers have begun supplying thousands of liters of carabao’s milk to the Department of Education’s milk feeding program, using the new packaging format.

Increasing corn and cassava purchases

To further boost incomes and ensure the country’s food security amid the pandemic, SMC, through San Miguel Foods, also ramped up purchases of corn and cassava from local farmers.

Since March 2020, SMC has purchased 796 million kilograms of corn, or roughly about 16 million sacks, from farmer cooperatives nationwide, including from north, central, and southern Luzon and southern Mindanao.

Through its Cassava Assembler Program, which serves as a platform for small farmers to earn a stable income, SMC has bought dried cassava granules equivalent to 173 million kilograms, up by 104 percent compared to the same period last year.

SMC’s Cassava Assembler Program, which already existed before the pandemic, is present in 28 provinces in the country. Of these 28 provinces, nine are part of the 20 poorest provinces that include Eastern Samar, Leyte, Negros Oriental, Bukidnon, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, and Zamboanga del Norte.