Pulling Bicol up from poverty with coco fiber ropes
In the early 90s, when the then dean of Bicol University’s College of Agriculture, Dr. Justino Arboleda, first heard of a report naming Bicol as the second poorest province in the Philippines, he was incredulous. “I could not believe it! How could Bicol be the second poorest province?” he asked. “We are so rich in coconut trees, the tree of life itself.”
He then continued, “So we conducted our own investigation in the university and to our dismay, we found that the report was correct.” Thus started Dr. Arboleda’s crusade to discover what had caused Bicol’s poverty and, more importantly, how to help alleviate it.
The quest eventually led him to leave his comfortable spot in the academe. He went straight to where these poor people were—the coconut farmers—to be able to give them an alternative means of livelihood by starting his own coconut husk processing company, now known as Coco Technologies Corporation (Cocotech).
“In school, we always hear that the coconut tree is the tree of life, that every part of the tree is useful,” he explains. “But in real life, we do not use every part of the tree. The coconut husk, for instance, is thrown away more than 99 percent of the time. It is considered farm waste—but when you think about it, there are actually so many things you could do with the coconut husk!”
As an agricultural engineering graduate from the Tokyo University, with a master’s and a doctorate degree to boot, Dr. Arboleda certainly knew what he was talking about. All the know-how, he already had. There was just one crucial thing that kept him from turning coco fiber (from coconut husk) into a profitable business venture: funding.
“At that time, nobody believed you could make money from coco fiber,” he says. “Wherever we went, they laughed at us. One banker that we tried to borrow from even scolded me. He says, ‘You in the academe are so full of researches, but you are unwilling to invest your own money into them.’”
With this challenge thrown in his face, Dr. Arboleda decided to do exactly what that banker said he would not do. He took his family’s savings, borrowed what he could from his siblings, and with the P250,000 that he was able to pool, plus the 5-by-10-meter piece of land his in-laws lent him, he started his tiny coco husk processing factory.
Incidentally, for him to be able to focus on the business, Dr. Arboleda also resigned from his dean position in Bicol University. “I knew I would need to be away most of the time to market our products, and I did not want people to say that I continued to receive a salary even when I was not present at the university.”
With his safety net of a fixed income gone, Dr. Arboleda took on consultancy work to support his family’s needs as his business strove to get off the ground. This consultancy sent him to overseas conferences. When it sent him to Germany less than a year after the business started, he took advantage of the opportunity to market his coco fiber products.
He educated his audience on coco fiber’s superior ability to absorb moisture, pressure, sound, and odors. He explained that coco fiber has natural antifungal and antibacterial properties. It is resistant to insects and mold. It could be used to insulate buildings from heat, cold, and sound. Coco fiber doormats ensured that all dirt and water from the streets stayed outside the shiny buildings’ doors. Coco fiber was good for car seat cushions, cat scratching poles, planting materials, even fertilizer. To top it all off, it was affordable, durable, and completely biodegradable.
The Europeans knew a good thing when they saw it. Suddenly, Dr. Arboleda had a huge export market. When he came home, he had to ask his in-laws if he could expand his factory to cover the whole farm. They agreed on a lease price, and the factory grew.
For several years after that, Dr. Arboleda was able to give livelihood to around a thousand households in Bicol. The people who spun his coco fiber ropes, which formed the base of many of his products, earned more money than they ever earned from just farming. Even the children were allowed to help, but only under Dr. Arboleda’s condition that they stayed in school. If the kids dropped out of school, the family was removed from the list of contractors. The families, of course, kept their kids in school. It all worked as it was supposed to.
Then disaster struck. One day, while visitors were at the factory, somebody accidentally dropped a lighted cigarette on a pile of coconut husks. “We are normally very strict against smoking near the factory, but visitors can be a bit hard to monitor,” Dr. Arboleda said. A raging fire resulted, and just like that, the factory was burned to the ground. Fortunately, they were insured, but the damages were not fully covered. The company had to shoulder the rest.
They were able to rebuild. But as luck would have it, just as they were starting to get on their feet again, that once-in-a-lifetime typhoon Reming struck. It was a typhoon Bicol would never forget, for the whole province was devastated.
As for Cocotech, their newly rebuilt factory was flattened. To make matters even worse, the coconut trees in the province were all felled, and there were no coconuts that could be sourced from Bicol for two whole years.
“At that time, I really wanted to give up,” Dr. Arboleda recalls. “But I could not abandon my employees.” And so little by little, they started again. For a time, they outsourced their raw materials from other provinces. It took six years for them to again rebuild their factory—but this time, they made sure the structure was typhoon-proof.
Recently, Dr. Arboleda was able to present his products and his work to President Noynoy Aquino. He showed the president how his erosion-controlling coco nets would allow the government to create longer-lasting ripraps at a fraction of the cost they would incur if they used concrete instead.
The coco nets helped plants grow on the riprap, their roots held the soil tightly, and they prevented landslide not only because the plant roots took in the water but also because the coco fiber nets were highly absorbent.
In fact, Dr. Arboleda’s technology had already been used in earlier years to prevent landslide in the Tagaytay Highlands. His coco nets were also used in the ripraps along the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expresway (SCTEx). Now, under President Aquino’s directive, they will be used in the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEx).
With a project of this magnitude, Dr. Arboleda once again faced his biggest headache: funding. “Our clients take 60 to 90 days to pay us,” he explains, “but our workers need to be paid on the spot.”
Fortunately, this time, Dr. Arboleda found an ally. Steering away from all the institutions that had rejected him in the past, he says, “We presented our case to Plantersbank, and they listened. They were very supportive, and they loaned us the money we needed to pay our workers so that this project could be done.
“I only wish I had met them earlier,” he laughs.
Today, Coco Technologies Corporation has a 7,000 square meter factory in Bicol, plus a separate warehouse in Quezon City. They are exporting products to Europe, Japan, and Canada. They are giving livelihood to around 2,000 households in Bicol.
In addition, they are offering free training to everyone who wants to follow in their footsteps.
“The market out there is huge, there’s plenty for all,” says the Bicolano hero. Indeed, there is life in the coconut tree. But it took one Dr. Arboleda to bring that life to Bicol’s poor.
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