The five Kiwi entrepreneurs, all of whom run companies with a sustainability focus, travelled to the Philippines to participate in the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative.
The trip took the group first to the capital of Manila, where they spoke at an event alongside Filipino entrepreneurs and attended a range of business and government briefings. They then travelled to the island province of Marinduque to visit farmers working in the cacao and coconut sugar industries where they helped plant cacao seedlings.
The programme was facilitated by AGREA, a Philippines social enterprise founded on the principles of fair trade and sustainable agriculture.
For Wellington Chocolate Factory founder Rochelle Harrison, a highlight was seeing produce being grown in Marinduque. “One of the things that matters to me is making sure farmers get a fair deal. So working with the farmers – and seeing and seeing what they have to go through to create a sustainable ecosystem – really brings it to reality.”
Harrison was shown a special variety of white cocoa beans, as well as other raw ingredients. She brought these back to New Zealand, used them to make chocolate and has since sent the end result back to the farmers.
She is now working with AGREA on an agreement to work with Marinduque cacao farmers on an ongoing basis.
Harrison is particularly interested in the opportunities for farmers to add more value to their land by intercropping cocoa trees with other crops.
“We are hoping to product a high-end single origin chocolate bar from Marinduque to help open up new opportunities. Where there is cocoa, there is life, so we all must plant more trees.”
Eight previous ASEAN Young Leaders Initiative participants from the Philippines were involved in the programme, including AGREA’s founder, Cherrie Atilano, who visited New Zealand in early 2015 to learn about this country’s agricultural technology.
Wellington-raised Rachel Espejo, a member of Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Leadership Network, is AGREA’s director of partnerships and advocacy marketing, and helped demystify the Philippines for her fellow Kiwis.
Wellington’s Roman Jewell, of peanut butter company Fix and Fogg, says the understanding of Filipino culture and the level of connections gained has given him the confidence to explore the option of exporting to the Philippines. “I feel like if I went back to the Philippines, I could make real headway.
“It gave me an appreciation of Asia that I didn’t previously have. If that is what is going on in Manila, what’s happening in Jakarta, what’s happening in Kuala Lumpur?”
He was particularly struck by the “US-centric” culture in the Philippines and felt it set a good foundation for his product. When he visited a supermarket on his last day in Manila, he encountered “wall-to-wall peanut butter”.
Jewell was taken aback by the scale of wealth in the parts of the capital. “There’s the buying power at the top of Manila. This is Asia-wide. You don’t need a big middle-class, you just need a big enough upper-class to be able to do it.”
He says was impressed by some of the corporate social responsibility in the Philippines – including a visit to Baseco barangay, a low-income area of Manila where Meralco, the largest energy utility in the Philippines, is running electrification projects.
He says he particularly enjoyed meeting Roberto Crisostomo, founder of cacao exporting company Seed Core Enterprises and co-founder of sustainable store Ritual PH. “He’s all about cacao. He’s just doing one small thing. He’s trying to lift it up notch. That’s what I’ve done with peanut butter.”
Since 2012, the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative has brought more than 50 entrepreneurs and business leaders from Southeast Asia to New Zealand, building business connections and facilitating trade links. In 2015, the programme was made reciprocal, enabling New Zealand entrepreneurs to visit Asia.