It’s not so much the road less traveled,” says Rachel Renucci-Tan of Chen Yi Agventures. “The road we are taking has never been traveled.”
Rachel Renucci-Tan and her Italian-French husband Patrick Renucci were so moved by the devastation wrought on Leyte by the 2013 Supertyphoon Yolanda that two years later, they decided to help in whatever way they could.
At that time, Rachel and Patrick were living the good life in Paris, with a view of the Eiffel Tower from their apartment. She was handling billion-dollar assets in her real estate finance company, while he was operating a large printing business.
“At first, we did not know anything about rice,” says Patrick.
On their first visit to Alangalang, Leyte, the couple saw tracts of rice fields, but minimal processing facilities.
After surveying 4,000 farmers on education, funds, family and so forth, the couple realized that these farmers were perennial victims of debt. Caretakers, not landowners, they fell victim to poor yields. Farming became a mere sideline, and children preferred to go to the cities rather than work in what was perceived to be a doomed enterprise.
Instead of doling out funds after calamities, which most businesses do in the name of philanthropy and public relations, the couple decided to work side by side, step by step with the farmers, for the benefit of all.
In July 2019, a P1.7-billion state-of-the-art rice processing plant rose in Alangalang. Four months later, Dalisay by Renucci Rice—wholly Philippine made—garnered third place in the World Rice Conference, beating 30 other entries from all over the globe.
But the road to glory is never easy.
“People asked, ‘why Leyte?’” says Patrick. “There are other places [for rice].”
Agriculture is often seen as a risky investment, highly politicized, with established players. Banks were initially reluctant to help out. Why not do something simpler, such as a franchise, with built-in safety margins?
A SWOT analysis, I tell them, will reveal that the risks are too great, the rewards too few. Most businesses, family or otherwise, will not dare travel this road.
“A true entrepreneur embraces risk,” says Rachel. “There is always risk in any business. You try your best to mitigate the risk, roll with the punches, prepare for the unexpected.”
“No one wants to go to Leyte, so we decided to go there,” says Patrick. “We saw a big opportunity. We did not want to bother anyone. We are not competing with anyone. We want to help.”
“But we are not an NGO,” says Rachel. Based on contract farming, Chen Yi is a business that benefits not just the owners but the stakeholders—farmers—as well.
But you don’t know much about farming, I say.
“Around the world, many people are farmers,” says Patrick. “We told ourselves, if they can do it, then so can we. Why should this [fear of the unknown] stop us?”
At first, even with the best intentions, Rachel and Patrick fell into a common pitfall. When they initially gave funds to the farmers, they soon discovered that more often than not, the beneficiaries used these for ‘karaoke and lechon,’” says Patrick. “So no more cash—only in kind, which is better.”
“Changing people is [very difficult],” says Patrick. “So we have to be the ones to adjust. We have to find the key.”
Three bouts of schistosomiasis, contracted from accompanying farmers in the fields, did not deter Patrick.
Being swindled out of their hard-earned funds—by a former manager—broke their hearts. But not their spirit. “In
France, payments are honored,” says Patrick. “Justice is strong [and swift]. Courts will collect the money [due us].”
“Giving up is not in our vocabulary,” says Rachel. “We would do so only to cut losses, [which is] sound [business sense]. But if you give up out of fear, frustration, desperation, then you are not a [true] entrepreneur.
She quotes Winston Churchill, who in World War II said, “We shall go on to the end … we shall never surrender.”
Dalisay by Renucci Rice is available in major supermarkets.
Erratum: Last week it was stated that Rachel got her philosophy degree from UP Diliman. She actually got her degree from the United States, but taught for a year at UP Diliman. The writer apologizes for the error.
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