By Yvette Tan

Rice is an important part of the Filipino diet. It is also a crop whose supply, over the years, has become problematic, as the Philippines, once one of the top rice producers in the world, now struggles to meet its own demand.

An agricultural company in Leyte is hoping to change this.

Chen Yi Agriventures recently inaugurated the Chen Yi Agriventures Rice Processing Center (CYA-RPC) in Alang-Alang, Leyte. The company is run by husband and wife Patrick and Rachel Tan-Renucci, who packed up their lives in Paris and moved to Leyte to set up a sustainable business after the area was destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. “We said, ‘we have to do something to help the rice farmers of Leyte,” Rachel said.

“We were so shocked with what happened here so we decided it was time for us to change the way we were living and earning money,” Patrick said.

Temperature-controlled silos to store the palay at a constant temperature of 21 degrees to keep it in a freshly harvested state for more than a year.

Rachel was an investment banker and fund manager, while Patrick ran one of the largest printing companies in France. They decided to set up the Complex in Alang-Alang because it’s considered the granary of Leyte. “We are not farmers. We came here to do sustainable business. We came here because nobody would come here. We came here because of Yolanda… We came here to change the way people are farming. To increase the income of the farmer, to increase the yield of the farmer, and to get them out of the cycle of poverty,” Patrick said.

Most advanced in the region

The Complex cost P1.7 billion to build and can process 50,000 tons of rice a year. It is fully automated, which means that there is less room for error. It contains temperature-controlled wet bins where palay can be stored at 21 degrees in a freshly-harvested state. Their drying facilities also include a continuous cleaning process, which, at 59 degrees, kills pests while it dries the grain. Because of these, they are able to mill on demand. “We do not stock rice because a lot of millers, mill, mill, mill, and then stock the rice or hoard the rice until the price is right. We don’t do that. We keep the palay in the bins, in the temperature controlled silos and we mill when there’s demand. We provide according to supply, not according to price,” Rachel said.

The milling procedure uses Japanese technology that allows the rice to be more polished using less processing and whitening. “Even though our rice is very white because we work more on the polishing and therefore, we manage to retain the essential nutrients of the rice. Our rice has the same fiber content as brown rice and double the protein levels because of our industrial processes,” Rachel said. “…it’s really white, it’s really clean, very light, and we don’t spray chemicals, we don’t fumigate our rice. We use technology to keep out pests.”

Partnering with farmers

The Renuccis work closely with the Department of Agriculture. They work with over 5,000 partner farmers to grow the RC300, an inbred variety from the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice). “We try to just stick to one variety so that the quality of our palay would be higher,” Rachel said.

Patrick Renucci beside the paddy separator that separates the brown rice from the palay.

They work with farmers in two ways: through the Renucci Partnership Program and the Renucci Palay Procurement Program.

The Renucci Partnership Program provides farmers with low interest loans, about 2% instead of the usual 20% that the farmers are used to, in kind. “We provide the seeds, fertilizers, and pest control. We also lease equipment to them,” Rachel said. “We provide our field monitors to help them ensure that they are following our planting protocols. We also provide end-to-end mechanization.”

Patrick added, “We want to provide the right input to the farmers so they can really increase their yield. Everybody’s technical about the price of palay but the most important is to increase their yield because if they can increase their yield, there would be much, much, much money.”

Rachel reports that farmers who’ve followed their protocol have achieved up to 200 cavans per hectare, from the usual 50-60 cavans. “Even those who didn’t really follow were still able to harvest 80-100 cavans,” she said.

The Renucci Palay Procurement Program, on the other hand, involves Chen Yi buying palay directly from the farmers. “We go to the fields and buy the palay directly from the farmers in cash so that we avoid intermediaries, so that all the benefits go directly to the farmers,” she added.

The Renuccis with some of their employees.

Challenges and solutions

The road wasn’t always smooth. There was resistance at first, sometimes from the farmers themselves!

The Renuccis are very honest about how their initiative has been received. “We have those who are really thankful and appreciated the help we have extended and there are those who believe that we cost them more trouble,” Rachel said.

While some farmers have been happy with the results (“We are very close to them and they’re very grateful for the help we have given them.”), there are others who don’t yet understand how a change in system will benefit them (“They think we’ve messed up their lives because we insist on new planting protocol… they don’t understand the benefits that we give them.”).

The Renuccis know that changing hearts and minds can be a long process, one they are prepared to be patient for. “I think it will take time (to change their mindset) because farmers, their view is quite short-term: they’re not driven by money, they’re driven by what they can eat today, how are they going to fill their stomachs today, how they can pay off their debts… I think we need to do this for longer, we shouldn’t give up,” Rachel said.

“There has been a lot of challenges, especially culturally, because they’re used to borrowing money at exorbitant rates. They would actually prefer to stay in their comfort zones, so there’s a lot of misunderstanding of our intentions,” Rachel added. “They would prefer to borrow at 20% per month, they would prefer to sell their palay to traders even (at a lower price). So, we’re hoping that as more farmers improve their lives, others would follow. So it’s been very challenging for us but we believe, and so we persist, and we will prevail.”

A model they hope will be copied

The palay is also bought at a higher price than what is usually sold to traders. Since prices fluctuate on a daily basis, the most Rachel could specify was about P1-3 above the prevailing market rate. “(It’s) a lot because we are very generous with the moisture content. Meaning that (we buy at a higher rate) just to help the farmers, even though we should be reducing the price because we’re buying water… just so that they have more income.”

Rachel Tan-Renucci explained that the milling procedure uses Japanese technology that allows the rice to be more polished using less processing and whitening.

The current Complex is just the first of four phases. Phase two involves buying new equipment, while phases three and four will involve building new facilities.

“My deepest wish is for our model to be replicated across the country. A fully integrated, sustainable model where we help the farmers increase their productivity, and we are concerned about the quality of their palay,” Rachel said. “If you increase their yield, you bring down their costs so they can be as competitive as farmers from Thailand and Vietnam.”

The rice variety is called Dalisay and is sold under the brand Renucci Rice. It will be available in leading supermarkets this month. The name was chosen to refer to the ‘purity’ of knowing where the seeds came from, where the rice was planted, and the farmers who planted them. As Rachel says, “We want that when you say ‘Dalisay,’ (you automatically think,) ‘Oh it’s from Leyte.’”

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s August 2019 issue.