I met him during a Coffee Training sponsored by the DTI-CAR and Philippine Coffee Board Inc.(PCBI) in Tuguegarao a few months back. I realized this as I went through my camera photos and saw the same bearded man who I had a chance to get to know better during our daily breakfasts in our hotel while attending Salone del Gusto Terra Madre 2012.
Manny Onayan finished BS Psychology in St Joseph’s College then took further studies in Conflict Resolution and Peace Building in the Eastern Menonite University in Virginia, USA . He would be instrumental in the formation of the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) as he was appointed as emissary to Malacañang by the Balweg group or the Cordillera Liberation People’s Army (CLPA ) in 1987.
His strengths lie in community organizing, and actually has a record of having organized 47 tribes or barangay (villages) between 1987 and 1989. A native of Tinglayan, Kalinga, he observed that all these tribes and villages around his province mainly lived on the barter system and hardly had any economic activity that was sustainable.
There was also no cash going around, much less savings, which meant all his people lived from “hand to mouth”.
The natural entrepreneurial spirit in Manny was awakened when during his organizing trips and projects he realized that some areas did not have much rice production as they had started vegetable farming while some areas had rice but hardly any vegetables. Enter the organizer turned entrepreneur. He started bringing rice to the western mountain provinces which only grew vegetables but no rice.
He would bring coffee from Pinukpok, Kalinga, all the way to Urdaneta, Pangasinan, and would make some money in between the trading activities.
When he finally married and started a family, he felt he also had to have his own farm to cultivate and get his food from. Then he experienced, first hand, the problem of most farmers—vulnerability to market forces, market prices.
When he had his first baby all the more he realized he could not be an employee and had to find a business that was more sustainable. He opened a store in Tabuk, Kalinga, and when he had his fifth child realized he had to continue the business of trading all around the Cordillera—from Kalinga to Mountain Province and Benguet down to Lingayen and up again to the North and back to Kalinga with various products each area needed.
As luck would have it, his efforts at trading paid off when Mara Pardo de Tavera discovered him and started getting heirloom rice from him, to resell at her Mom’s Organic Market, now Mara’s Original Market. This exposed Manny’s products to the growing organic clientele in Manila and Makati. Soon, Mara offered him a table space which he could now manage on his own. So Manny would travel each Saturday to get to Makati in time for the Sunday market in Legaspi Village, Makati.
Today, Manny the bearded man—he wears a beard with a plastic fancy clip that would initially bother you but you will get used to after a few minutes of chatting with the man—confirms he is a “farm-trepreneur” still bringing all this heirloom rice, Cordillera organic vegetables and other upland products to Manila’s growing organic consumers.
Now 52, Manny looks younger than his age, maybe because he loves what he does. He also is a fish and vegetable man, and avoids eating meat whenever he can. At our first dinner in our hotel, he chose to just have mixed salad and a Risotto di Barolo ( not a bad choice at all!).
Manny is unlike many “farmer-entrepreneurs.” He quickly understands price structures and immediately responded to my questions on value-addition, pricing and other business concerns that I am otherwise hard-pressed to explain to many producers and especially artisans or micro entrepreneurs.
He is an interesting mix of experience, educated business sense, and a lightness that will make you want to hear his many stories. He advocates education of the consumers about organic products and their health benefits and we hope that his many customers will spread the word. I, however, suggested to him that his efforts must be written about so he can multiply the number of people who will appreciate the patronage of heirloom rice. He points out of course that freshly milled heirloom rice is best. He only buys them in palay form from the farmers, and only mills what his immediate market can consume.
I offered him a place in our ECHOmarket/store, so many more consumers can get the healthful benefits of heirloom rice, everyday and not just on weekends. Manny has access to many of about 27 varieties of heirloom rice from Kalinga, Ifugao and Mountain Province. They come under many names: Tinawon, Chong-ak, Unoy and many more. The important thing to remember is that when you buy heirloom rice, you help these mountain farmers preserve the traditions of their tribes and the physical beauty of the terraces of course. Yes, it may come out more expensive than white rice varieties, but the vitamins and healthful benefits you get from this “slow food” makes up for its premium price. After all, who needs to eat more than a cup of rice every meal? One good cup of heirloom rice is better than two of the commercial varieties of polished rice which hardly has vitamins left in it and is mostly carbohydrates. Heirloom rice has proteins and fiber.
I am fortunate to have met the other Terra Madre rice producers: Rowena Gonnay of Pasil, Kalinga, Raymunda Mamaril of Barlig,
Mountain Province and Jimmy Lingayao of Banawe, Ifugao at The Terra Madre—Salone del Gusto in Turin, Italy—where they displayed their heirloom rice varieties in the Biodiversity in Asia Special setting.
Like Manny, their entrepreneurial journeys are truly inspiring and I can only hope that their tribes literally increase.