In 2003, John Concepcion, Unilever RFM Ice Cream Inc. chief and managing director, decided he wanted to do more for the community. At the time, the company, maker of Selecta ice cream, was already a leading producer of the popular comfort food for Filipinos.
Jessie Ericta from Selecta’s marketing department said that in keeping with Concepcion’s commitment, the company partnered with Gawad Kalinga (GK) to assist in community development in different parts of the country.
By 2007, Selecta had helped establish an urban farming initiative at a GK community.
“It was not really meant to be (on a) commercial (scale) at the time. It was for the people,” said Ericta. Families in the partner community initially planted vegetables on a vacant lot.
A decade later, the urban farming initiative has become a source of the primary ingredient, ube or purple yam, in many Selecta products.
Ericta said the transformation of the community project into a commercial endeavor started in 2011 when Selecta’s parent company unveiled the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP).
Under this is the initiative to promote sustainability which aims to double the business while lessening the impact on the environment. USLP has three primary objectives: improving the health and well-being of one billion people, reducing their environmental impact by half and enhancing livelihoods for millions of people worldwide.
“With the clear direction (from) USLP, we were determined to pursue sustainable sourcing. We had already partnered with GK, so why not start from there?” said Ericta.
Through direct partnership with Gawad Kalinga, Selecta selects a land/community to work with, then Selecta’s partner supplier/social entrepreneur manages the community.
“WHAT WE WANT TO BUILD IS A RELATIONSHIP WITH THE COMMUNITY, WE WANT TO BE ABLE TO PROVIDE LIVELIHOOD.”
Selecta tapped Sunlight Foods Corporation, which has been producing ube products for leading food companies in the country, to help process the raw material and provide direct assistance to farmers.
“Those in the community are not farmers. We had to ask (Sunlight) to help organize the entire farming system,” said Ericta.
“Having an old hand assist the farms is better than having Selecta do it on its own,” she added.
Under the present setup, Sunlight serves as the middleman between Selecta and the farmers in GK communities, procuring and processing the harvest before selling it to the ice cream manufacturer. GK helps look for areas where farms can be established.
“What we want to build is a relationship with the community. We want to be able to provide livelihood,” said Ericta.
“WE COULD GET ANY LAND AND WORK WITH ANY SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR. BUT WE WANT TO INVOLVE GK FARMERS.”
The USLP aims to have 100 percent of the raw materials to be sustainably sourced, a goal for all Unilever products. Going beyond sustainable sourcing, Selecta tapped GK with a goal to promote inclusive growth in the community, thus the development of the livelihood program.
Ericta added, “We could get any land and work with any social entrepreneur. But we want to involve GK farmers.” The GK farms ensure Selecta of a continuous supply of its primary ingredient, and in return a steady pro t for the farmers themselves.
Establishing a farm that could meet the company needs on a commercial scale was challenging in the beginning. Ericta said the company they had to look for the right areas to establish the farms next to GK communities. In addition, tapping communities of non-farmers meant having to equip them with the right skills and training. Unforeseen events such as calamities and crop diseases also had to be kept in mind.
With these, the company sought expert advice to set up its first ube farm in a GK community in Tarlac. Its success has led to the establishment of similar farms across the country over the years.
Selecta said the model currently benefits over 40 farmers in GK communities. Dozens more have separate contract farming agreements as suppliers of other raw materials.
At the moment, ube from the GK farms meets only around 20 percent of the company’s needs. But Ericta said the company hopes to expand the program to provide opportunities to even more farmers .
This story is part of a series of articles written by GO NEGOSYO writers being published by GoodNewsPilipinas.com every Tuesday as part of our support to Philippine businesses.