Coco sugar levels up
Jamie Lao, founder of Cocoro Sugar, wasn’t exactly looking into producing coco sap sugar when she first started thinking of putting up her own business around three years ago.
She was more interested then in muscovado because a few relatives were already into that product.
Then she found herself at a local trade show, where she saw a light coco sugar, which to her stood out because she was used to it being dark.
“I was, like, ‘Wow! Who made this?’ And it turned out to be farmers from a small farm in Cagayan de Oro,” she says. “So I reached out to them. They had this really nice product but didn’t know how to promote it.”
That was where Lao stepped in by working with the farmers to make a more consistent product, as well as helping them find a larger market. Since her initial intention was to create something good enough for export, Lao even traveled to France in 2014 and showcased Cocoro in the world’s largest food exhibition, SIAL. She came up with two variants: Dark Caramel, which has the usual roasted color which coco sap sugar is known for; and Ivory, the lighter, slow-cooked version. Lao sells these at Salcedo Market (every Saturdays), Landmark Supermarket, Citysuper Trinoma, Robinsons Supermarkets, Unimart, Makati Supermart, Duty Free, Pops Candy Store and Earth Kitchen.
“It got good reviews. People were interested, but I think education on it was lacking. When they tasted it, they liked it, but they weren’t really familiar with it as a food ingredient,” Lao says.
That’s something she aspires to change, especially since she believes that, with the help of our chefs, coconut sugar could become one of the Philippines’ flagship food products.
Before Lao hit the sweet spot, so to speak, in her business, she says she went through a phase wherein she didn’t know what exactly she wanted to do with her life.
A Management of Applied Chemistry graduate of the Ateneo de Manila University, Lao says her dad, a shrimp farmer, had “grand dreams of me being a chemical engineer [who would] invent my own products and sell them.”
“I was such a hardworking student in high school that college already felt like a stretch—I didn’t want to do it anymore! But I still had to go through it,” she says. “So after graduation in 2007, I chilled for a little bit.”
What happened next was a series of trial-and-error for Lao: she worked in real estate, but realized she didn’t enjoy the corporate life; went into fashion school, where she found out she couldn’t cut a pattern to save her life; went to drama school abroad and even tried her hand in chemicals trading, the closest thing to what she studied in university.
“And then I went backpacking in China which really opened my mind [to starting a business],” says Lao.
Her first entrepreneurial venture was a rice-bowl stall business in a busy area near a Manila university, which failed because it couldn’t compete.
“So I told myself, if I can lose money over something I don’t really care about, then I can lose money on something which I love,” says Lao—and that love turned out to be Cocoro, because it lets her help her fellow Filipinos.
“It’s a good way to give farmers livelihood, and it teaches people to eat better,” she says. —ANNELLE TAYAO-JUEGO
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