Young social entrepreneur pioneers chocolate making in Lanao del Sur | Inquirer Business

Young social entrepreneur pioneers chocolate making in Lanao del Sur

/ 02:14 AM September 10, 2023

COCOA CHAMPION Filipino delegates at Youth Co:Lab Summit 2023 in Bangkok last July. From left: Youth engagement analyst for UNDP Philippines Johanna Erroba, Citi Philippines corporate affairs head Rodora Granada and Maranao chocolate maker Sittie Aisah Balt. —Contributed photo

COCOA CHAMPION Filipino delegates at Youth Co:Lab Summit 2023 in Bangkok last July. From left: Youth engagement analyst for UNDP Philippines Johanna Erroba, Citi Philippines corporate affairs head Rodora Granada and Maranao chocolate maker Sittie Aisah Balt. —Contributed photo

What had literally started out as a backyard industry grew into a social enterprise that transformed a rural village into an emerging cocoa hub.

It was in April 2021 when Sittie Aisah Usop Balt was asked by her father, Diamongun Cali Balut, for ideas on how to earn from the cocoa beans they had harvested from their 3,000-square meter backyard in Barangay Tagoranao, Bayang, Lanao del Sur.


Being the millennial that she is, Sittie watched videos from YouTube on how to process the pods containing the beans. She even tried processing the beans herself. It was an utter failure, she says, because the end product was so bitter. But her curiosity had been piqued so she started to read more about cocoa beans. Through her research, Sittie discovered that cocoa is a high-value industrial crop, with a global demand that has nearly tripled since 1970.


In the Philippines, Davao region is the leading cocoa producer with a share of 71.2 percent, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. Cacao also posted the largest increase in production during the second quarter by 4.1 percent to 2,347.51 metric tons from the past year.

This made the then 28-year-old high school teacher aspire to turn her hometown into a pioneering chocolate bar producer in Lanao del Sur. In November of the same year, she pitched her idea to the Ranaw Project Grant Program of Lanao del Sur province in partnership with Philippine Business for Social Progress.

“[We used the] cocoa beans [we harvested] as raw material. Our original prototype that time was ‘tablea,’ a raw material used for hot chocolate. But the day before the pitching competition, we were able to come up with dark chocolates,” Sittie explains. Their dark chocolate won fourth place at the grant program and bagged P100,000.

Sharing knowledge

To hone her skills in chocolate making, Sittie signed up for relevant seminars and training programs. She also hired more people to help out in the production process of their cocoa beans. Among her proudest moments was when she purchased their very own melanger, a granite machine used to grind cocoa bean nibs into chocolate liquor.

Being an educator, Sittie felt the need to pass down her knowledge to others. She taught other local farmers in their barangay the cocoa production process. The youth from colleges in Marawi City also benefited from Sittie’s teaching about chocolate production.

It took a long deliberation to decide on what to call their homegrown artisanal chocolates. She had changed the name twice before coming up with a name that is closer to their roots. “Our first name was Cacao de Maranao, [then we] changed to Cacao Maranao and finally named it Kakaw Meranaw. Cacao was changed to ‘kakaw’ as it is read as cacao and cocoa. When read by foreigners, it sounds rude and vulgar in Meranaw language,” she says.


“[The] Meranaw in Kakaw Meranaw was included as the people working with Kakaw Meranaw are living around the lake and also, the raw materials are planted and processed in Lanao del Sur.

[We] incorporated the elements of meranaw okir and langkit motifs [in our brand],” Sittie explains further.

What makes Kakaw Meranaw chocolates unique is the fusion of local flavors such as turmeric and palapa—a sweet and spicy Maranao condiment consisting of thinly chopped white scallions, pounded ginger, turmeric, labuyo chili and toasted grated coconut.

Back then, there were only Sittie and her father, along with three other farmers. Now Kakaw Meranaw has grown to 47 employees, most of whom are farmers from Kamapiyaan sa Tagoranao Marketing Cooperative. Sittie’s more defined role now is to purchase their cocoa nibs for the chocolate and tablea production.

“I still dream of being able to harvest our first metric ton of cocoa beans and to make use of the other idle lands in the Bangsamoro region so that we can plant more cocoa and give livelihood to more farmers,” she says.

To date, Kakaw Meranaw has six shared stores at Moro Cafe in Cotabato City; Morning Glory in Baloi, Lanao del Norte; Aretes Style Store, Farm Grill, Lereve Koffi and Altitude Cafe located in Marawi City.

Youth Co:Lab

Her growing network of fellow entrepreneurs led her to the Youth Co:Lab Regional Summit, where close to 200 participants representing 20 countries and territories gathered in Bangkok, Thailand, on July 12 to July 14 to tackle the world’s most pressing societal challenges through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. The summit was jointly organized by Citi Foundation and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in partnership with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Commonwealth Secretariat, CVC Capital Partners, the International Labor Organization and the Islamic Development Bank.

Sittie recalls it was hard to believe that she was selected as a delegate. “I was so excited to represent the Meranaw community in Lanao del Sur and the Philippines as a whole; and to finally show the world that my dad did this, that my father was doing a movement in farming that is beneficial especially to other local farmers,” she says.

Centered on the theme “Inclusive Entrepreneurship,” the participants had a common agenda: to encourage and celebrate the role of youth in accelerating the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; showcase and inspire action from underserved communities and find solutions to support the most excluded social groups.

The summit convened delegates from diverse backgrounds, with over 6,700 participants joining virtually.

“At Citi and the Citi Foundation, we are committed to fully embracing the diversity of the communities we serve. Through initiatives such as the Youth Co:Lab Summit, we hope to bring together partners to support young people’s entrepreneurial journeys and break down barriers that inhibit inclusive progress,” says Peter Babej, Asia Pacific CEO at Citi.

“Today, young people across the Asia-Pacific region are not only aware of present-day challenges that affect their communities; they are also taking proactive steps to make a difference. If we harness the entrepreneurial mindsets of these young people and involve them in making innovative solutions based on their personal experiences, we can build bridges to inclusive growth,” says Violet Baffour, UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub Director officer in charge.

As a delegate, Sittie says she was able to gain many helpful insights such as the vital role that indigenous people play in a community as keepers of shared identity and rich cultural heritage. She also found mentors, among whom is Patch Dulay of Spark Project, which is now setting up a cocoa nursery for Kakaw Meranaw. Also, she linked up with potential collaborators such as Singapore-based Vairavan Ramanathan of Project Enigma, a social enterprise that aims to democratize access to mechanical puzzles and science toys.

“We already had an initial meeting regarding the ‘puzzled chocolate’ that we are trying to produce incorporating Meranaw designs in it,” she explains.

Asked what advice she can give to budding social entrepreneurs, she says, “We must invest in ourselves and in our enterprise. We sometimes need to do the work and seek knowledge [from others]. Always ask and be open to suggestions.”

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“Lastly, the real return of investment is the number of people you were able to help.”

TAGS: chocolate, Social Entrepreneurs

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