Supporting female cacao farmers in the Philippines

Supporting female cacao farmers in the Philippines

May 4, 2021

In 2016, People in Need (PIN) introduced cacao to struggling farmers in the Philippines’ Eastern Samar province. The “Enhanced Sustainable Income Project,” funded by Swiss Solidarity and implemented by PIN together with Helvetas, had mixed results. Beneficiaries were receptive, but they also continued to intercrop with coconut trees, a more traditional crop for this region, and the uptake of cacao was slow. The farmers had grown accustomed to the minimal supervision required by coconut crops, and did not put in the time required for their cacao trees to prosper. 

In 2018, to further encourage farmers to invest in cacao in Eastern Samar, PIN created the “Enhanced Sustainable Cacao Livelihood Programme,” with funding from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and in partnership with SPS Biosecurity Ltd. As a result, woven into the lush forests and green landscapes of this rural province are tales of phenomenal women who have successfully nurtured cacao. They plant cacao not only so they can see it grow, but to improve the lives of their children and grandchildren. These are their stories.

If cacao plants could speak

Imelda Cadayong, 63, of Barangay Hagna in the town of Guiuan, Eastern Samar, believes in the economic potential and resilience of cacao. Cadayong says: “One day, I will see the fruits of my labour and I will be able to make chocolate.” Cadayong’s cacao tree was one of the first to bear fruit in the community; it is now taller than she is. “Before cacao, I was working on kamote (sweet potato) farming. We didn’t earn a living from that, it was just enough to feed us.”

When Super Typhoon Yolanda hit Eastern Samar in 2013, it devastated most of the area, flattening many of the crops. However, unlike the coconut trees toppled by the typhoon, the cacao trees persevered. Motivated by the resilience of cacao, the farmers sought a more proactive approach toward tending to their farms. They participated in training sessions organized by PIN and engaged in knowledge sharing activities with fellow farmers. By the time Typhoon Ursula hit the area in 2019, more farmers were cultivating the heartier crop. Cadayong tells us that it only took three months for her cacao to recover after Typhoon Ursula, and her cacao farm has since become one of the community’s most productive.

Cadayong finds peace in planting cacao. She often visits her farm to get away from the noise and stress of taking care of her nephews, nieces, and pet dogs. “When I am tired, I talk to my cacao plants,” she says. “If they could talk back, I think they would be proud of me. Even though they are just crops they know I would never leave them alone.”

For her children

Julita Ogsimer of Barangay Anislag in rural Quinapondan, another town in Eastern Samar, is similarly upbeat about her crops.

She used to be a coconut farmer. However, coconut trees take eight to 10 years to reach their full potential, and with the increased frequency of major storms, Ogsimer grew weary of seeing her crops destroyed by the high winds. “I’m really happy when I see cacao, so much so that I won’t plant coconut anymore; my husband can no longer climb up the trees. At least with cacao, you don’t need to reach so high,” she says. Before Typhoon Yolanda, Ogsimer also planted bananas, but was discouraged by the low prices they fetched on the market.

Ogsimer and her husband work as a team; they wake up before dawn and prepare a packed lunch for the journey, as the farm is far from their home. While her husband brings the carabao and hauls a basket filled with crops on his back, she carries five kilogrammes. “It is difficult, but all our exhaustion disappears when we plant cacao,” she says. On days when the couple is too tired to head home, they rest in a little blue hut at the top of the field until they have enough energy to make the return journey.

Life has never been easy for the couple, who still struggle to find a steady source of income. “My kids feel sorry for me because I am always crying about life’s difficulties. Sometimes, I just lie down so I can forget my exhaustion,” Ogsimer says.

Her husband does many jobs: some days, he fishes in the sea or drives a tricycle. On other days, Ogsimer will do laundry or bake tinapay (bread) to sell. She used to tell her kids, “Don’t be like me, because I didn’t finish school.” Today, her children are doing well; they have all graduated from college and have enough to send their kids— Ogsimer’s grandchildren—to school.

Now that all of her children have moved away to Guiuan, which is several hours from her cacao farm in San Isidro, she hopes they will find time to visit. “My children don’t believe that we have grown cacao,” she laughs. “They are busy taking care of their kids and helping them study so they have never seen our farm. But I will be grateful if they do.”

“My children are my inspiration,” Ogsimer adds. “I’m not just looking out for myself and my husband. As long as we have crops, I will give them what I can to help them out.”


The mother of cacao

Michaela Arre, 64, of Barangay Calicuan, Borongan City, is often referred to as ‘nanay,’ or mother, by many in her community. It is a fitting title, given that she was one of the first to plant cacao here. Even before PIN provided seedlings and training, and growing cacao became more popular, she had already begun growing the crop.

When the Department of Agriculture offered free seedlings, Arre and her husband seized the opportunity. Many of her neighbours chose peanuts or corn because of the quick turnaround, but Arre had her eye on the longer-term future. “When you harvest peanuts or corn, that’s it. With cacao, if you take care of it, it will still be there after a long time,” she says.

Arre has turned her cacao farm into a family business, where she and her relatives have begun processing their own cacao beans, as well as those of their neighbours. They are now able to export premium dried, fermented cacao beans and make good quality tablea or ground cacao beans for the local market, thanks to a processing technique they learned during training sessions led by PIN. Arre has been passing this skill down to her children and grandchildren, who work on the farm and in the cacao processing facility.

Arre is just one of the many empowered women in her neighbourhood who has beaten adversity by the strength of her own will. “I mean, just look at my hands!” she exclaims, showing off fingers that have spent many hours digging into the soil. “It is not only men who can work. I am proud to be a woman cacao farmer, because I know that one day, I can help not only my family and children, but also fellow farmers in my community,” she adds.

Hope for the future

“Balang araw...”, a phrase which means ‘one day’ in Filipino, is a common sentiment echoed by the women cacao farmers in Eastern Samar. It is a saying which symbolises the power of their hopes and dreams. Together, women cacao farmers and their communities hope for a brighter world for their children and their grandchildren. A brighter future which they are building through cacao.

Author: Rebecca Galvez, PIN Philippines Communication & Advocacy Officer