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The future of farming is in building regenerative food systems
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The future of farming is in building regenerative food systems

September 28, 2020

Kirti Manian (00:00:54): Hi Louise, welcome to our show. We’re delighted to have you with us. I’m going to get started by asking you this. You were a Junior Masterchef finalist at the age of 12, can you take us through your journey to where you are today, please?

Louise Mabulo (00:01:09): Oh, yes. Well, when I was 12 years old, I was a finalist in the TV reality show Junior MasterChef, which honestly, launched me into a very early culinary career and I’m very grateful for that opportunity. When I was training under some of the best chefs since I was 12 years old in the industry and I was one of the younger members of Disciples des Escoffier, I was considered one of the prodigies of the culinary world in the Philippines. And when I was 15 years old, I was competing locally and internationally, I was winning awards and hosting pop-up dinners that featured Filipino food and ingredients. And now beyond that, because I was on the show, I was also a brand ambassador for many kitchen brands, I was doing cooking demos, and, I wanted to find ways that, I could invest my money sustainably and, something that would preserve my income until I was older and I looked into a lot of things and one of them was livestock. And, when I was 14 years old, I grew my own cow. I grew it for 3 months and I sold it 3 months later with a 200% return of income, which when I was 14, was shocking to me. I earned about 28,000 pesos from that one cow alone.

And, it began this journey in my head about farm-to-table food, grow in your own regions and promoting locally-sourced produce, because I said why would I keep money in a stock market when I could invest in livestocks and I could see it in person, and, it was kind of a joy to me to work on that and find greater purpose in stewarding creation.

And, it wasn’t until December of 2016, when I really got into agriculture because my town was hit by Typhoon Nock-Ten, and it destroyed 80% of land in my area, and it affected livelihoods. It was devastating, and it made me begin to take a closer look at agriculture and what I could do as a young person to make a difference. 

Kirti Manian (00:02:56): Sounds amazing (laughs). It sounds amazing, the bit especially about where you had, significant returns on that one cow sounds really cool. 

Louise Mabulo (00:03:04): Thank you, I mean, it was wonderful.

Kirti Manian (00:03:06): You are the founder of The Cacao Project. For the work you did with the project, you were recognized as a Young Champion of the Earth 2019 by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Can you tell us more about both the project, and the significance of the award, please?

Louise Mabulo (00:03:23): Well, to tell you about The Cacao Project, our mission is really to equip farmers with the training and resources they need to set up climate-smart and resilient livelihoods that work together with nature. And, we promote agro-forestry, planting of short-term and long term crops, and give them training to better be positioned for sustainable success. Now, when we won UN Young Champions of the Earth, The Young Champions Program, to give you a bit of background, it’s currently the biggest prize for young environmentalists worldwide, where you have the opportunity to benefit from UNEP’s platform to promote the significance of the work that we are doing, and receive immense support from their wonderful departments.

Kirti Manian (00:04:03): I see, okay. The project itself, can you talk a little bit more about it? How long has it been on for? Especially, my next question is also about the challenges you have faced since launching the project.

Louise Mabulo (00:04:17): Right, well my project is, I think it’s approaching three years now, and we’ve been working with farmers, about 200 farmers now, we’ve reforested about 85 hectares worth of land, we’ve planted 85000 trees. And, it’s been quite a journey, to be very honest, at the very beginning, I didn’t have in mind, a social venture. What I had in mind was a typhoon relief effort – something to alleviate farmers, their burdens in their everyday life, and the burdens of the experience from our yearly typhoons.

And, some of the challenges I faced was, number one, de-stigmatizing the concept of agriculture, because many people look at agriculture and they think of poverty, they think of a lot of loss and they think of unsustainability, and it’s just tragic that that’s the case when it wasn’t that way a long time ago. And, a lot of farmers and a lot people, especially investing are in the cities. They don’t see the potential opportunities in agriculture because of these stigmas in their mind.

In fact, in schools here in the Philippines, they’ll tell you that if you fail in class, you’ll become a farmer. And, that starts this terrible stigma in children and people. And, so when I started it, people couldn’t quite believe that I would want to go from a successful culinary career into agriculture because they thought that it was, kind of degrading, but in my eyes, I didn’t see it that way. I thought this is a wonderful opportunity to move forward and rethink our food systems.

And so, people would look down on me because I was young or because I was this girl and I came from a culinary career, they thought I wouldn’t take it seriously. But now, I mean, slowly farmers were seeing the returns of their income, the amount of harvest that they’ve had, they’ve seen the commitment that we’ve had for agriculture as a whole, and for the food systems that we work with. And, they’ve seen these returns and they… they see the opportunity in it, and we’re slowly making a dent in these stigmas that people have about our food systems.

Kirti Manian (00:06:14): And in terms of challenges, has COVID played any significant role? I know the Philippines has been under different kinds of lockdowns and has been facing challenges in dealing with COVID. Has this impacted your project in any way?

Louise Mabulo (00:06:29): Well, with COVID-19, I mean, at the very beginning, it did cause a few setbacks. We were meant to have trainings in different countries and travel to chocolate factories worldwide, and bring more people around to, you know, more of our farmers experience what chocolate production is like worldwide, so they could understand our vision. But, we’ve had to cancel those along with a number of trainings that we’ve had in mind to produce because a lot of the farmers we work with are at risk and we didn’t want to put more people at risk. We had to cancel those.

We reimagined our approach so that we could digitize a bit more and help more people. And not only that, but it helped us understand that we needed to be more self-sufficient in our community, since a lot of the models here, they don’t promote self-sufficiency within the community of the farmers and food producers itself, and it’s something that we’ve begun to establish because of COVID-19, and for that we’re very grateful.

Kirti Manian (00:07:24): So, we’ve had Mitzi Jonelle Tan of YACAP on our podcast previously, and she talked to us about what climate change means in the Philippines. To you, give us your own perspective, from your own experience about what it means to you, and within the community that you’re surrounded by?

Louise Mabulo (00:07:42): Well, I’m not exactly familiar with Mitzi’s work in YACAP, but I imagine it would be quite different from what we’re doing here in the provinces, since a lot of the urban landscapes in the Philippines and the rural communities are vastly different. And, people in the provinces, where I’m staying especially, they’re more reliant on the fickleness of nature and weather to make sure that their livelihoods take off. In fact, Greenpeace had declared the Philippines to be one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. And, a lot of our farmers, they’re particularly vulnerable to the weather changes, since their entire livelihoods, their entire income sources are dependent on agriculture. So, for me, I feel like climate change is so much more important to people here and, people in the Philippines especially, we need to have that seat at the table, where we can, kind of dictate and let people know how important our climate, our environment, and this harmony that we have with the weather is, that it’s a primary part of our life. We cannot afford to lose the value of our nature, our ecosystems, our bio-diversity in our systems because it’s directly tied and interlinked with our lives.

Kirti Manian (00:08:54): Absolutely, I hear you on that one. We’ve previously talked about climate-smart agriculture on this podcast, so we understand the premise of what it means. Can you tell us more about what this means for the Philippines?

 Louise Mabulo (00:09:07): Well, climate-smart livelihood is part of something we’re advocating, which is also regenerative agriculture. And in the Philippines, as I’ve mentioned, people are more dependent on nature, on soil quality, on weather conditions to survive. And, we need to adapt to these changing times & the climate to optimize our livelihoods. And, places like ours in the Philippines, where land is chopped up into smaller parcels because of a policy called agrarian reform, we can’t mechanize our land, or else, we’d be operating at… at a loss - which is really, it’s quite tragic for lot of the farmers because they cannot use or form in bulk.

So, it’s really taking a look at how we already manage our land and upgrading it by equipping farmers with more entrepreneurial skills and knowledge of the value of their work. So, regenerative agriculture itself, I mean here in the Philippines, it’s not new. It’s not new to us at all, but over time a lot of the commercialization and industrialization has changed our perspectives of agriculture and our approach on it in the past year. It is a matter of bringing both new innovations and old traditional knowledge to the forefront so that we can both work with nature in harmony.

To give you examples, like… a lot of the people here in my community, a lot of their old techniques such as using chillies and garlic for pesticides have proven to be really effective, but people have stopped using it because companies told them “oh, you should use chemical pesticides” which over time acidify our soil and contaminate our waters, and it’s not as beneficial to people like us in our community, so it’s a matter of bringing it back and getting people to understand the value of some of the traditional techniques that we used to use.

Kirti Manian (00:10:43): It’s very interesting that we had Dr. Debisi Araba, who’s an amazing thought leader from the agricultural sector in Africa and he is Managing Director for a forum called the AGRF, and this is something he talked about, and I’m… I’m curious to hear about your vision too in that sense. He  says his vision is not for farmers to till but to use data and technology at their disposal, right and to re-galvanize agriculture.

And, he wants Africa to be like that food basket of the world. So, I’m curious to hear like you look really further into the future, what is then your vision of how agriculture kind of needs to go that five steps further in the Philippines of where it is today?

Louise Mabulo (00:11:31): I think that agriculture in the future will be regenerative, that we can work closely with nature to bring us our food systems and really harness the power of our forests, our landscapes so that we can create not just food but productive economic forests for the communities here so that we can become both self-sufficient but also intrinsically sustainable in the way that we harvest and bring food to our tables.

Kirti Manian (00:11:58): Great to hear. I also want to know about food security in the Philippines. Now, the longer the pandemic lasts, the more players in a food supply chain would be affected, and this kind of leads to paralysis at the end. So, can you tell us more about what steps you are taking with your project to help the people in the community not feel the pinch. You mentioned self-sufficiency. Can you talk a little bit more about that, maybe with some examples?

Louise Mabulo (00:12:24): Well, definitely. I mean when the pandemic started, I can tell you it was a knee-jerk reaction from every one, and it was quite shocking that even places like ours which are remote would be locked down, but during the very beginning of this pandemic I know that it’s… it’s very different from the stories that everyone else has experienced, but from our perspective, what we did experience was more of a haven, to be very honest.

Because, we… we shifted to more self-sufficient models, but to tell you a story from the very beginning was when everything locked down, we had an abundance of produce. We didn’t realize we have lobsters growing in our shores, we didn’t realize we had so much lettuce and eggplants, and all of these things coming in that were usually bought out by other countries or other buyers and markets. And, all of a sudden, we had all of this stuff here and much of it is because of the work we started at that The Cacao Project because we wanted to diversify farmers’ income streams, so now we had these abundance of like variations of different harvests, and a lot of the people here instead of buying things from outside, they would end up barter-trading, so, we had access to all of these wonderful short-term crops and all of these wonderful produce.

And, since that was kind of an effort started by The Cacao Project to begin with, no one experienced food insecurity because they had a variety of ingredients at their disposal instead of just rice or just coconuts.

And, our government… our local government picked up on it and decided… Oh, you know, since we have all of these produce that’s not being sold to the markets in other towns, they decided to buy all of the farmers’ produce for standardized prices and distribute that as a relief good to all of the community members, so instead of giving them canned foods and instant noodles that were sodium-rich and not great for them, people here had healthy, nutritious food that was bought from the local farmers, and it encouraged people to eat healthier, to eat better, and it encouraged farmers to continue their work because now there is a secure buyer which was our local government.

And, it still came back to them eventually as meals on a table, and it was quite like a haven as I mentioned at the very beginning, and it still continues until now, and a lot of local LGUs have copied or done similar models.

So, it was really a wonderful thing for us because it’s a matter of rather than you know, our food being taken and moved somewhere else, it’s just circulating here in a really lovely self-sufficient circular model.

Kirti Manian (00:14:54): Yeah, I was going to say that, I mean it sounds exactly like that. The farmers making the produce for the local community, the government is feeding into that and delivering it back within the community. It would really be wonderful, right. I mean, I understand that farmers do need to provide for looking beyond just within the community, but it’s… it will be wonderful if some part of that sustained post-COVID  as well because if everyone realizes how important it is to have something self-sustaining and is circular in that sense, it would really work miracles in the community.

You mentioned being a woman, you mentioned talking about agriculture and this is a country like the Philippines, so the basic role of women in the country in the agricultural sector is now gaining attention, and their importance has started to be recognized. What more do you think needs to be done to help women feel empowered in this area?

Louise Mabulo (00:15:48): I mean definitely, now a lot of the farmers coming in the front spotlights of agriculture are women, and I’m very proud of that, and I think one thing that we need to address is that women and men as much as we want equality there are some different aspects that we have to accept. I mean some women can either compete with the output of men, but men are usually, they are more of the brawn side, or we could just to try to kind of address the fact that some aspects of the value chain in agriculture that women can better contribute on, for example, women are more skilled at community-building, at financial planning, at farm plans, innovation and technological contributions, at studies which we are really adept at, to be honest and especially since men, as I mentioned, are more in the brawn side, women are really great at being brains of agriculture, and we just have to kind of diversify or understand that there are many different jobs within the value chain that women can contribute in, in agriculture and not just in the traditional jobs that we usually see because a lot of people think – “oh, women can’t do this job or can’t do that job.”

Number one, we can, and number two, we have a lot more to bring to the table from a different perspective if you look at different job opportunities for women in agricultural field, and I think we just need to find ways to work together as women find groups that support each other and be more open to the idea that women have a lot to contribute within this… this particular sector.

Kirti Manian (00:17:19): Can I ask within your experience itself as the woman, when you said, you know “I’m going to make this shift to agriculture.” One, you mentioned it is considered degrading, right, and the second is also about just being a woman in the agricultural sector. What kind of steps did you take, I mean, what was the support you had within the community or externally to kind of make your way to say “okay, you know, I’m going to launch this project, and I’m going to help people.”

So, I would love to hear about… more about your experience as well.

Louise Mabulo (00:17:45): Well, I’m very fortunate that a lot of the people that I worked with initially were quite open to the idea that I would be in agriculture, especially our local agricultural department and some of the  people who mentored me at the very beginning, but honestly with the farmers that I’d worked, with a lot of them would look at me and thing “oh, this is just a little girl, she is probably doing this to look good or for press,” and I said “No, that this is not the case.”

So, it was really a matter of the long ride. I was showing my commitment in agriculture and in what I was doing, that I knew what I was talking about, that I knew exactly what I was doing and showing that in the race against everything, I could keep up with everyone as we move forward with agriculture, innovations, and as we move forward with the introduction of regenerative farming in the Philippines.

So, it was really a matter of just proving myself in the long term but a lot of people, you know, if they continued to look down on me as a woman, then they are probably just not worth working with because they are either narrow-minded to accept the fact that women can accept certain jobs, and that’s completely fine because I keep working on these campaigns to destigmatize the image of agriculture in the minds of people and some people just really want to accept it, and that’s completely alright as long as you know, I don’t have to work with those people, but so far it’s really changing the image of agriculture especially from the school level, from young children where we publish books on a positive image of a young woman in agriculture for kindergarten-level books to going on speeches worldwide and internationally and people addressing the fact that women are a growing stakeholder in the agricultural sector.

Kirti Manian (00:19:21): Have you met or interacted with people who have been influenced by you in that sense? I would be curious to know.

Louise Mabulo (00:19:27): Oh, I have quite a number of people who have, and I’m very lucky because in my community, a lot of young people whether they are agricultural students or not, they are starting to be proud of being, you know, farming things, of growing pigs and capsicums and different sorts of things that they can grow in their backyards. They are starting to understand that there is so much value in agriculture. I spoke at a lot of universities where I show the people how much an entry-level job is in the city and how much the costs of living is there, where the cost of living is higher than their salary. And I showed them how much they would earn from agriculture in the provinces. And I feel like a lot of people were driven initially by the concept of making more profit by staying in the provinces, which is quite funny. 

Kirti Manian (00:20:12): Yeah.

Louise Mabulo (00:20:13): But, eventually it became a point of pride for them, like “oh, I’m in agriculture and I’m very important to the economy. I’m important to my community because I’m a farmer” and they’ll say, they’ll credit it like, “Oh, Louise said that farmers are important to these things” or “Louise taught us that, you know, we should remove the stigmas against farmers, and now more people are posting about it or making videos or doing tree planting activities and participating actively in the community  which is really such a point of pride for me as a young person, being able to make that influence and difference in my generation.

Kirti Manian (00:20:45): Do you think social media has helped you a lot, because I know social media has, you know, it’s great for some things and it’s…it can be terribly negative in other aspects. So, what kind of credit would you give to social media to push your agenda in that sense forward?

Louise Mabulo (00:21:01): Well, social media really helped me start my project to begin with, when we had a typhoon relief effort. It was reaching out to people to get the message of how my community was in need of people’s help and aid at the time. 

And now, it’s starting to help us push our, not quite an agenda, but our message and our mission in de-stigmatizing agriculture and pushing for sustainable, regenerative agriculture within our communities.

And, well, at first, a few months ago I was quite in denial. I said, “Oh, I don’t exactly need to function with social media because a lot of people I work with don’t have social media”. But since the pandemic started, we’ve been forced to digitize. And now that people are online, they’re using it for more conscious purposes and efforts. 

And, I feel like now it’s a perfect audience to show people about regenerative agriculture, about its benefits to the community, about how important agriculture is, because you have to kind of, address young people who are currently scrolling online and change their minds through posts and through videos and through these small campaigns that we’re, kind of, bringing out and through webinars, as well. So it’s been amazingly helpful, more than I even thought it would ever be.

Kirti Manian (00:22:11): And, that’s great to hear. You’re right that people are kind of forced to sit inside and then, you know, the best way to, kind of, get their… your message in that sense across is grabbing their attention, right? And then if you manage to do that and change lives, and inspire, then it’s an absolutely fabulous initiative.

I want to talk about the role of government and you’ve acknowledged that especially when we started off, and the role that the government has played within the community as well. So, what role does politics and policy play in this whole scenario? And, can you tell us more about what the government needs to do to, kind of, help your organization?

Louise Mabulo (00:22:47): Oh, well, I mean, I… I can credit the local government for being an amazingly helpful resource for us, as an organization. A lot of the policies currently in place, are trying to help our farmers, especially in the last year, which was amazing to me. Last year, a lot of grants took place to help people, you know, raise start-up capital, and the government has been helping us during this pandemic, as I mentioned, they’ve been distributing seedlings, and they’ve been listening to young people like me, which is remarkable in times like this. And now, the Philippine government has decided that cacao is a growing priority area, and they’ve created The Philippine National Cacao Council to address the growing production here.  

Of course, there’s still a lot of leeway in terms of improvement. But, what they’re doing so far is just remarkable, considering that we’re in this developing nation, but they’ve realised the importance of agriculture. But, I think, you know, we could definitely have policies to empower farmers some more in the field of agriculture, bring more farmers and individuals whose livelihoods are affected by climate change to the table, especially during policy guidance in meetings to let their voices be heard. But, I otherwise, it’s quite fascinating how much the government has done so far for farmers and agriculture, and I’m immensely grateful as an organization that we have this Agricultural Training Institute and department of agriculture that continues to try to find ways to help us.

Kirti Manian (00:24:08): Sounds brilliant. You’ve talked about urban dwellers looking down at agriculture. How do we look at building a nation or communities, in the sense, towards farming and agricultural communities? You know, we live in urban areas, food comes from supermarkets. So, we conveniently forget where our food really comes from, don’t we? So, what kind of measures or steps would you suggest to, kind of, resolve this, as an issue?

Louise Mabulo (00:24:36): Well, definitely, I mean, food systems have created a disconnect between producers and consumers, and it’s very obvious. Especially with chocolate, which is something we work closely with, most people don’t even know where chocolate comes from. And, if you show them what a cacao pod looks like in real life, they won’t know what it is, or that it even becomes chocolate, and it’s quite funny, but it’s also very tragic because it shows you that there’s this huge disconnect  in our food systems. 

And, I think one of the most basic pillars to make a difference in that is, number one is, education. Bring people back to the roots of food production. Show them what it’s like to be on a farm and understand the value of responsibly-sourced ingredients. I mean from a primary school level, I know that in Japan and in Australia, they’ve done things like that already, and I hope it will become more widespread in curriculums that people will incorporate agriculture and food systems into our educational systems.

Another thing is, create agriculture so that it is intrinsically sustainable and profitable so that our forests, instead of barren lands, will be productive economic forests that grow us food, and people can have that accessible within their communities. Just having a community garden will make so much of a difference. Because, we have entire swaths of areas that are just food deserts, where people have no access to locally produced food, and we need to address that gap and create food systems that can be applied within even urban areas or rural areas or communities that don’t have access to food producers… local food producers. 

So, it’s really small measures like that will bring it, but it starts all with education.

Kirti Manian (00:26:14): Yeah, I do agree. I do agree. So, coming to my last question. How do we look at tackling climate change? I’m asking the big question and what would your call of action be to our listeners?

Louise Mabulo (00:26:29): I really love this question. I get it quite a bit, and it’s a wonderful question, because I always tell people. “Be responsible. Understand that you have a personal stake in the survival of the human race. Understand that your contributions, no matter how small, they all matter.” And it’s really time to take tangible action, you know. We cannot afford to be passive in a time like this. And, we have to be active stewards to creation and be the person that makes the world, even that much of a better place, and that’s my call to action. “Be the person that makes the world a better place.”

Kirti Manian (00:27:07): Thank you so much for your insightful answers, Louise. I think I've learnt so much more about what is happening, and the work that you’re doing sounds absolutely brilliant. And, I think our listeners have learnt a whole lot today as well. Thanks again.

Louise Mabulo (00:27:21): Thank you so much, Kirti. It was such a pleasure talking to you today.

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