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Ethnic Food Processors Go Global by Using What’s Local

A globally competitive product is unique, affordable and has quality. Given this trend, “how would Filipino entrepreneurs compete globally?” Ana Reene D. Manrique, vice president of Moon Dish Foods Corporation, asked.

She knows the answer very well. “Filipino producers should make use of underutilized agricultural products.” By using these locally produced and inexpensive raw materials, producers could save much of their capital and also help farmers earn more money. And this mindset has led Ana and her husband, Boy who is the company president, to success.

Moon Dish was the first company that produced canned ethnic Filipino dishes such as Laing (taro leaves in coconut cream), Puso ng Saging (banana blossom in coconut cream), Bicol Express (green chili pepper in coconut cream), Camansi (breadnut in coconut cream), Bagoong sa Gala (sauteed shrimp fry in coconut cream), and Tuyo (dried herrings in oil).

Recently, Moon Dish has developed the formulation for ready-to-eat Ginataang Halohalo and Ginataang Mais, and has started producing dried taro leaves. How the couple ended up producing and exporting these products is an inspiring story to tell.

FROM BAKING TO CANNING
In their 20s, Ana and Boy were both social workers in Central Luzon. Together with the NGOs, they helped farmers in their crusade against unfair labor practice for 11 years. “We could have been employed, but we chose to become social workers because we wanted to help in poverty alleviation, and we found more relevance in it,” Ana said.

However, when their first daughter started going to school, they had no choice but to leave social work. They left in 1991 and opened a small bakery in front of their house in Moonwalk, Las Pinas. That’s why when their bakery grew into a small confectionery company, they named it “Moon Bake”, which produces chocolate cookies called “Choco Crinkles.”

In 1998, however, Moon Bake was one of the companies affected by the Asian financial crisis. The value of dollar, against peso, was soaring high and pulling up the prices of sugar and flour, which the country imports. Ana said they could not increase the price of Choco Crinkles-they were selling each at P1.50-because the students were their main market.

Boy and Ana thought of potential fallback products to save their livelihood from the crisis. They wanted something which is made of local raw materials, has a long shelf life, and could be exported. Amidst the crisis, they were researching in UP Diliman and UP Los Banos to come up with a fallback product, which was the banana chips.

But they immediately got over with their would-be banana chips venture when they saw the canned laing in the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). They were amazed because canned laing has a one-year shelf life, has no preservatives and monosodium glutamate, and could be exported, too.

The couple, however, had one problem: The canning business is capital-intensive and they don’t have millions to invest.

Testing the Waters
Lack of capital, Ana said, was the main reason why the entrepreneurs who first saw the canned laing did not pursue the venture. Another problem was that they doubted the marketability of the product since Filipinos used to eat only canned meat products.

These things did not hinder the couple. With P100,000 capital, which they got from their earnings from Moon Bake, they started producing canned laing through the DOST’s Technology Incubation and Commercialization Program, which helps small entrepreneurs produce and test the marketability of their product.

DOST has start-up facilities for canning such as can sealer, retort and boiler, which the couple rented for P1,500 a day. To save cash, they bought taro leaves from small farmers. They assigned some of their employees at Moon Bake to work on their new venture this was the birth of Moon Dish.

In November 1999, three months after they have started their canning business, they joined the Asian Ethnic Food Festival (AEFF) and their product gained positive remarks. In December 2000, they have exported 300 cases of canned laing to Guam. Each case contains 48 cans.

Actually, the exporter-consolidator whom they met at the AEFF was asking for 700 cases, but they did not meet it because the start-up facilities in DOST were only capable of producing 15 to 30 cases a day.

What happened, on the other hand, proved that the product is marketable and exportable. And this inspired them to invest more money in their budding business.

The couple loaned PLS million from DOST’s Technology Application and Promotion Institute in 2001. They used the money to transfer the production in the Food Terminal Complex in Taguig and to buy equipment.

They also improved the labels of the canned laing and Choco Crinkles since they were attempting to tap SM and Robinsons as their markets. Fortunately, the two malls accepted their products and “that was the turning point of our lives.” Ana said.

Through their consultations with the DOST, the couple have developed the formulation for other Moon Dish products. They were on their way to success since then. Now, they have a can sealer, labeling machine and filling machine, have finished paying their loan, and have exported some of their products to the U.S., Europe, Canada, Middle East and Japan.

“If you want to succeed in business, you have to be very innovative. Use local materials and try to export your product. In this way, you could compete globally and give people livelihood,” she adds.

Aside from creating jobs, Moon Dish has helped small farmers in Southern Tagalog. Its need for big volumes of taro leaves and other agriculture products has been a way for the farmers to earn more.

“One farmer who supply taro leaves to the company is from Laguna. Before. most of his land were allotted for palay production. Then when we closed a deal with him, maybe, he realized he would earn more in a short time if he would utilize more of his land for taro production and that’s what he did. He used his income from taro to support the education of his children,” Ana explained.

She may not realize it, but based on what she said their business has somehow led them back to social work. The only difference is that they now have the mean, to help more people and promote the Filipino culture by exporting ethnic Filipino foods, thanks to underutilized agriculture products.