It is Thursday and Cherrys Abrigo is on her way to buy rice from the Dumagat farmers in Antipolo City, Rizal. A few years ago, the now 3-hour drive from her hometown Los Baños, Laguna leading to the community was anything but smooth.
“This was muddy back then. I had to ride a motorcycle and pay P250 every travel,” Abrigo said as she pointed to the concreted road.
Her pick-up truck reached a valley set at the lower foot of the Sierra Madre mountain. They call it Sitio San Ysiro, and there, a farmer had been waiting for her arrival.
A few days ago, Joelito “Leroy” Vertudez descended from the mountain to the main road, where mobile telephone signal is available, to send a text message to Abrigo informing her that the community’s rice is ready to sell.
Of calling and empowerment
Abrigo started her shoulder-toshoulder partnership with the indigenous farmers in Daraitan, Tanay, Rizal through a UNDP-funded project.
The chemical engineering graduate from UP Los Baños attributes her calling for helping the marginalized to her college organization called Ugnayan ng Pahinungod.
This calling started occupying her inner mind after working for only three years in the corporate world. Armed with her passion and savings, she went back volunteering fulltime, this time for NGOs. With countless programs and band-aid interventions, she realized the crux of the matter.
“I began to ask why real change was not materializing in our chosen community so that’s when I learned that they have become dependent on us. I realized we were doing more harm than good,” she confessed.
Abrigo, 34, wanted a more sustainable approach but her savings were not enough. She then proposed a one-year organic farming project worth P1.2 million to UNDP that involved a closedloop intervention – from training to marketing. Her team began with 12 farmers chosen by the chieftains of the village.
“They wanted me to choose the beneficiaries, but I insisted that they should decide as I wanted to empower them,” she pointed out.
Her college degree came in handy in simplifying technical terms in organic farming when she was educating the farmers. It also helped them produce value-adding products. For Abrigo, the marketing aspect of her project helped in empowering the farmers.
“I told them that since they know how difficult it is to come up with their produce, it is only but proper that they decide the price of their products. That’s when we began fair trade,” she said.
Abrigo contacted her friends and other network points to sell the farmers’ produce. These included Good Food Community, an organization she used to work with that helped her connect the farmers to Healthy Options, one of the largest stores of all-natural products in the country.
The project lasted for a year (December 2016-2017) but the farmers in Daraitan wanted to continue what they had started.
“I wanted to maintain our momentum, but I had to secure a market because anytime, our clients can just stop ordering from the farmers,” Abrigo disclosed.
Because of this, her café and zero-waste store Sierreza was born.
To date, Abrigo has established partnerships with three communities: Daraitan; Sitio San Ysiro; and General Nakar in Quezon.
Sitio San Ysiro
Leroy Vertudez emerged from one of the houses in the village as he saw Abrigo. The two walked to one of the houses situated near the end of the village.
The house belongs to Rolando “Rolly” Vertudez, Leroy’s uncle and one of Abrigo’s main suppliers of rice for her café.
The farmers plant mostly pigmented rice such as red, black, and glutinous black. Farmers name the rices bakyaw, inengkanto, and iniput-ibon. They sell these to Abrigo for P60-75/kg or P3,000- 3,500/cav.
On Abrigo’s visit, she was picking up garlic, mangoes, and 5cav of ecologically produced white rice sold for P65/kg or P3,250/cav. These came from 20 farmers in the upper areas of Sierra Madre and were consolidated by Leroy a few days before Abrigo came.
“Every time we harvest, we contact Ma’am Che first before anyone,” Leroy disclosed.
“That’s because I allow them to charge a markup price,” Abrigo said in jest.
But for the Dumagat farmers, she is more than a customer, and rightfully so, as she helped empower the community.
“She taught us how to lower our production cost, veer away from chemicals through organic farming, and practice quality control regimen,” Tatay Rolly enumerated her good points.
The community’s partnership with Abrigo’s Sierreza has also helped him send his seven children to school. From his last harvest of 80cav of red and black rice, he bought a motorcycle for his son who also assists him in the farm. This was made possible when Abrigo posted a photo of him and his harvest on Sierreza’s Facebook Page. The followers and customers then responded and placed their orders through their comments. A photo of Rolly with the motorcycle is now posted on the same page.
The reality in the nearby market is different.
“There, we can’t control the price as it is dictated by the ‘market master.’ We also need to pay for transportation cost,” Tatay Rolly, 51, lamented.
With Abrigo, the farmers need not pay the necessary expenses since she is willing to go through the long-hour drive and pick up the supply personally.
While the farmers produce rice on a small-scale, Abrigo emphasized that “it is not all about the volume but also the right price.”
The Sierreza café and zero-waste store opened on August 8, 2018.
The pigmented and organic rice bought directly by Abrigo from the indigenous farmers are sold in the store and cooked for the café’s rice plate series, such as mushroom sisig, tempura, and champorado. The café, located a few blocks away from UP Los Baños, does not use synthetic MSG to camouflage the natural flavors of the food. Abrigo exerts efforts to source out all the ingredients locally.
“I want our customers to appreciate the food; that it’s organic and produced by IP farmers and we practice fair trade,” she said with conviction.
To inculcate her advocacy, Abrigo and her staff would visit the farmers and immerse themselves in the community. She believes that if she can bring across her advocacy to the farmers, she too, can do the same to her café staff.
“You have to be consistent in everything that you do.”
With this concept, Abrigo is certain that “there is no competition.” In fact, if there are those who want to copy her business, she thinks it is an advantage because her advocacy will be replicated as well.
“By putting up Sierreza, I hope a lot of people would adopt our framework to support more farming communities.”
Before Abrigo left for Antipolo, she was busy preparing for the opening of a branch store along Maginhawa Street in Quezon City.
It has been almost a year since she opened Sierreza and never thought that a branch would pop up sooner than she expected.
While the café’s popularity keeps on growing and the Los Baños community continues to support her cause, she too, remains committed.
“I never spent a peso on advertising. But we invested on stories. Every time there is an interested customer, we tell how we started,” Abrigo said.
Before long, it is Thursday again. Another 3-hour drive from Los Baños to the farming communities.
“I don’t get tired of telling our story because our farmers never get tired.” Cherrys Abrigo speaks.