Reaping rewards in Kapatagan

Raymundo Manlabe, Sr. likes to tell the story of how, in the late 1970s, he prowled the moist, pitch darkness of Kapatagan, Davao del Sur, scared as a rat but determined as a bull, to protect his family from the New People’s Army, which was then heavily infesting the Philippine countryside.

He was only in his 20s, a fresh volunteer of what was then called the Civilian Home Defence Force. That was the stuff he was made of, if his choice of his firearm was any indication—an M1 Garand, because the sound alone of its volley was “demoralizing,” he says.

Today, at 62, Manlabe sits at a table with me, looks up wistfully to remember the old days riding a carabao, and then brings his eyes down on me to make a point.

A coy lad from Maasim, Iloilo who’s now turned gritty with experience, he is one who believes in bananas—or, more precisely, in the commercial potential of this tropical, often-maligned fruit.

Outside our room, rain loudly pours, dissipating the mist. We are huddled inside with his colleagues in a banana processing cooperative. A town fiesta is underway and there is plenty of food on our table. 

Kapatagan is an upland town laying at the foot of Mt. Apo, the Philippines’ highest peak.  Located 65 kms. from Davao City, it is known for its mountain resorts, cold climate, and an interesting, if fading, indigenous culture. In 2004, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization recognized the town’s thriving vegetable farms as a sustainable industry. 

But it has never been known for this banana plantation, until now.

If you take it from Manlabe, there’s nothing like it as a rural enterprise. He now serves as Chair of the cooperative, but he’s been in the industry for the better part of 16 years.

The Kapatagan Banana Growers Cooperative (KBGC) began exporting its bananas in 2009. But it was the year after when it decided to up the ante by subjecting itself to the rigors of enterprise development. 

At that time, the cooperative had a ramshackle of a plant and no office. A group called the Foundation for Rural Enterprise and Ecology Development of Mindanao (Freedom) was called in to provide a business development training to the cooperative members and officers.

Since then, there was nowhere else to go but up. 

In two years’ time, it received a Rainforest Alliance Certification, a sought-after seal that “assures consumers that the product they are purchasing has been grown and harvested using environmentally and socially responsible practices,” according to industry sources.

By 2015, it was officially recognized as a fresh fruit and vegetable exporter by the Bureau of Plant Industry

The following year, the processing plant was built, starting with 12,000 boxes per week, processing a volume covering 168 has. A packing facility was also inaugurated.

Today, the KBGC has 12 office employees, 65 plant workers, 32 members, and a plantation covering 280 has. It exports to Japan, Korea, China, and the Middle East. 

On that night of the interview, just before the revelry began, the board gave away P400,000 worth of bonuses to its workers.

Freedom President Antonio Peralta says he’s “pleased with how the cooperative has grown all these years and with the fact that our group has made a modest contribution to its achievements.”

Manlabe and his colleagues are elated with the success of the venture. But they say it was not without challenges.

The rest of the $720 million banana export industry may be grappling with such large-scale problems like pestilence, natural calamities, and a disruptive insurgency. But KBGC is quietly attending to its home court issues. 

Product grade, for one, remains a primordial concern, which is why the cooperative has adapted “Freshness & Quality” as its motto.

Standards at a Japanese port, for example, are so stringent inspectors take a random banana fruit from the container, toss it into a blender with the peel, and examine the liquified specimen in a nearby laboratory. If found below specifications, the entire shipment is deemed unsatisfactory and sent back to its origin.

At the outset, putting up the plantation was already tricky. The land lay smack within a protected area on account of its proximity to Mt. Apo. It also had ancestral domain concerns because of a significant population of the Bagobo-Tawawala tribe. 

And to further muddle matters, there were boundary issues with neighboring Bansalan and Sta. Cruz of Davao del Sur; Calinan of Davao City; and the province of North Cotabato. 

All such obstacles were eventually hurdled through painstaking paperwork, diplomacy, and sheer business sense.

It’s a long way from patrolling the town’s dirt roads in the dark. But for Manlabe, the sun has risen for him, his family, and his community. And he couldn’t have had it any other way.

Photos show Japanese visitors to the plantation site in Kapatagan’s Marawer area last September, lifted from KBGC’s Facebook page; and Messrs. Manlabe and Peralta.