By Yvette Tan

Women are natural peacemakers.

In the case of Sulu Royal Coffee, the peacemaking is literal.

Princess Kumala “Lalah” Shug Elardo, of the Royal House of the Sultanate of Sulu, was born in Panamao, a remote, high conflict area in Sulu. She grew up in Zamboanga, but found herself back in the village where she was born in 2007 when she had to accompany her daughter who worked as the municipal medical officer in the area. “She volunteered to go there because no doctors would like to go there,” Princess Lalah says. “I was challenged because even I have not been there for so long.”

During her stay, Princess Lalah, a former social worker, noticed that a lot of the people were jobless. “I saw the women carrying pails of water, the men are carrying guns,” she recounts. “I thought of doing something. There must be something better.”

Coffee production caught her attention because she would see people laying down coffee beans on the dirt road so that they could intentionally be run over by vehicles so it could be depulped. “They don’t have the machines, and it seems they don’t have any know-how on coffee. That’s when I thought about coffee.”

It all started with water

The first project that brought the community together was the construction of a system that would bring water to the village from a mountain source four kilometers away. “(Since) it’s going down, maybe we can do it through gravity, because I have seen some places in Luzon who uses that technology.”

Not everyone was on board at first. “They said nobody would come, because this is a conflict area. I told (them) no one would really dare come here if they don’t have anything to do here. We should do something.”

They estimated that the project would be done in 90 days. They finished in 21. “When some of them saw the chance of having water, everybody participated,” Princess Lalah shares. “They realized that group efforts can really produce results.”

Picking the best beans 

Princess Lalah tried to harness this newfound spirit of unity. “I see people here doing nothing, so I thought, why not spend our time on producing coffee instead?”

It took some time to convince the locals to try their luck with coffee because of the negative experiences associated with its production. Coffee can only be harvested once a year, and because of bad production practices, it was sold at a lower price. Princess Lalah was determined to change this. “I said, let us try producing quality beans that could match the price increase,” she says.

She began attending seminars on coffee production, meeting the members of the Philippine Coffee Board, of which she is now a director. “My concept then was to change the quality. I don’t have the business know-how; I still don’t know how to market.”

One of their first products was civet coffee, or coffee beans processed through the digestive tract of the civet cat that is harvested in its droppings. Princess Lalah shares that since civet coffee wasn’t drunk in the area, she received her first batch free. She sold it in Manila and returned the money to the farmers. “They asked, does the income really came from selling coffee? Some are still hesitant. However, that was how everything started – they believed that there is indeed money in coffee.”

A woman’s touch

Slowly, the community began to refine their processes. Princess Lalah credits this to the work of the local women. “The women are meticulous, and I guess, they could be persuaded easier, especially if their fellow women will explain to them,” Princess Lalah says.

She explained that she fully earned the trust of the community after she set up a daycare program for the local children. “Slowly, I noticed that more and more people are coming to me. I told them that I also came here, and although my husband is a military man, my heart still goes out for my ‘kababayans’ here. I am also in pain seeing everything in chaos from both sides,” she says. “We started when they believed.”

This was in 2008. They didn’t start earning until the next year, and profits have been growing since.

Better lives through coffee

The People’s Alliance for Progress Multi-Purpose Cooperative (PAPMPC) was set up in 2010, producing fine coffee under the Sulu Royal Coffee brand. The coffee is planted on 124 hectares of Agrarian Reform land, with room for expansion.

Each partner farmer started earning an average of P15,000 annually in 2009, which has risen to about P200,000 in 2018. Green beans are sold at P300-P350 a kilo while roasted ones fetch P500-P700 a kilo.

The cooperative currently has 374 members and has inspired 11 sister cooperatives, for a total of 2,200 farmers. None of the members have ever had to take out a loan.

In between coffee harvest seasons, the farmers supplemented their income by intercropping with plants like ginger, turmeric, kamote, gabi, ube, bananas, and other vegetables. They are also currently exploring other crops with assistance from the Department of Agriculture, STI, and DOST.

The farmers’ lives have changed for the better. They have been able to send their children to school (In a speech, Princess Lalah said that by 2016, 28 students have graduated from college, 230 from high school, and 350 from elementary).

They have been able to put up houses and now have a better water system. There is peace and order in the area, and government workers have set up health centers and the like.

Other people have started their own businesses. A lot of former insurgents have laid down their guns in exchange for farming. “That is because they experienced to live with their families, with their children and their wives,” Princess Lalah says. “I told them, don’t just look at coffee as coffee. Look at it as money. It’s the money that you plant, not just coffee, because this coffee will give you money forever, even though it’s only (harvested) once a year. That training in the hills will not give you anything.”

The little co-op that could

The PAPMPC continues to grow its distribution network. Last year, they penned an agreement with Universal Robina Corporation (URC) with the help of GoNegosyo. An investor has offered to inject a sizable sum into their operations which will allow them to buy new machines and upgrade their facilities.

The co-op also recently purchased a property where they plan to set up a training center for other people in the province, since a lot of groups have been wanting to replicate the co-op’s model. “I think Philippine coffee has a good future,” Princess Lalah said. “We only need to give importance to coffee farming and farmers. We have good coffee in the Philippines.”

With coffee gaining such prestige all over the world, even as demand continues to outpace supply, there is potentially a lot of money to be made, especially if the beans are farmed and processed with care. “I think there is the market in coffee, because the demand is so high and the supply is so low,” Princess Lalah says. “You can see that from coffee shop. There is a huge demand for coffee in the Philippines. You don’t have to look for the market. It’s the market that will look for coffee.” (Reprinted from Manila Bulletin, March 3, 2019)

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s April 2019 issue.