A VIRTUAL market platform is now helping hundreds of farmer-entrepreneurs across Western Visayas region cope with the ill effects of the prevailing coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.
Dubbed "Arbo Merkado," it is an e-commerce initiative of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to help farmer-beneficiaries' products grow and thrive amid the global health crisis.
DAR-Western Visayas Regional Director Sheila Enciso said the regional line agency, through its Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Development and Sustainability Program, has come up with the measure to maximize the use of social media, particularly Facebook, in order to address the urgent need of agrarian reform beneficiaries organizations (Arbos) to sell more quality products at affordable prices.
"By providing our Arbos the social media platform where they can showcase their products, we are not only giving them livelihood but we are also igniting their hopes and determination to continue to live and survive," she said.
Enciso pointed out that "we could not survive this present pandemic without the farmers; thus, they are our modern heroes and that there's a need to also help them."
In August 2021, at the height of the so-called “fourth wave” of Covid-19 pandemic in the Philippines, the “Arbo Merkado” was born.
This online marketing strategy of DAR-Western Visayas had begun assisting farmer-beneficiaries in the region whose marketing and selling of products were affected by the restrictions imposed in light of the Covid-19 threat.
Leonor Juliet Lena, officer-in-charge chief of DAR-Western Visayas’ Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Development and Sustainability Program Division, said that, during the early months of the pandemic, the products of the farmers, especially those in the far-flung communities, were stuck in their areas.
“There was really a difficulty in transporting the products,” she told SunStar Bacolod.
Lena recalled that before the pandemic, the agency’s way to showcase the products was through trade fairs. However, due to Covid-19, such activities were restricted.
“So, we looked for other means to still showcase the products of our farmers, our ARBs,” she said, adding that the “Arbo Merkado” was really conceptualized because of Covid-19 pandemic and that it came into reality through the use of technology.
Managed by DAR-Western Visayas, the Arbo Merkado Facebook page is linking the wide-variety of products of the farmer-beneficiaries in the region to the buyers.
Personnel of the regional line agency including focal persons in six provinces are utilizing the page to promote the products by uploading them online using a uniform design and template.
Each post contains a photo of the product, its name and description, price, and contact details of the Arbos including their address, phone numbers and emails.
Given the limited knowledge and access of the farmers to technology, the agency takes charge of creating the design and template in the meantime.
“Farmers just have to make their products ready for selling,” Lena said, adding that products are from various sectors like food, tourism and handicrafts, among others.
She said that among the fast-selling items amid the pandemic are “healthy products” like calamansi juice, malunggay powder and turmeric brew that are locally produced by farmers using their own produce.
Currently, the platform is assisting 23 active organizations with 46 products.
Since its launching barely five months ago, the virtual market platform has enabled these farmer-entrepreneurs to generate a total sales of almost P2.6 million.
“This is how big the help of social media is,” Lena said, stressing that “it would be very hard for our farmer-beneficiaries to earn such a huge amount and capture a wider market if it’s not because of the platform, especially during this time of a pandemic.”
Reaching the buyers
Most of the buyers are distributors and resellers of the products. But how can the goods reach them, especially that the farmers are challenged by the Covid-19 restrictions?
Lena said through the contact details shown in the Facebook post, buyers directly contact the Arbos for orders which are mostly in bulk volume.
The DAR official explained that the provinces actually have display centers where buyers can see and buy the products.
However, the pandemic is making it hard for the farmers to bring their products to these facilities, Lena said.
“Since most of the orders are in bulk, the buyers are the ones getting the products from Arbos,” she said, adding that “but our focal persons can also assist in the delivery."
If the buyers’ place is within reach, the farmers are the ones bringing to them the goods, she added.
‘A timely blessing'
For the Hacienda Esperanza Communal Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association (Hecarba), the implementation of “Arbo Merkado” is a “timely blessing” for the organization and its 30 members.
Organized in 2010, the Arbo has a combined area of about 33 hectares, mostly planted with sugarcane, located at Barangay Nagasi in La Carlota City, Negros Occidental.
Its president Angelito Estama said that aside from sugarcane, they have been producing bananas, rice, cash crops and fruit crops.
In the bid to make their organization more profitable, they ventured into production of muscovado and other products like sugarcane juice and banana chips, among others, two years ago.
Estama said they started selling their products in the community, catering to a number of individual customers in the locality.
“We really tried to capacitate ourselves in terms of becoming entrepreneurs by attending various training and programs initiated by the government,” he added.
When the pandemic came, the Arbo’s sales from their processed products weakened as restrictions have caused difficulty for their goods to reach the buyers.
Due to excess supply and difficulty in selling, they opted to give for free some of their products like sugarcane juice, banana chips and banana cue to medical frontliners in the city. Some, they alloted for household consumption.
Thanks to “Arbo Merkado” which enabled their products to gain ground even amid the pandemic. It was through the virtual market that the organization was able to capture a wider market niche.
Estama said after their muscovado sugar was posted on Arbo Merkado Facebook page, they started getting bulk orders from the DAR itself, Bacolod Adventist Medical Center and Doctor’s Hospital in Bacolod City, retail stores and coffee shops, and the local government of La Carlota.
On an average, they are now selling at least 30 to 50 kilograms of muscovado sugar per week at a price of P100 per kilo.
Hecarba’s banana chips also captured the same set of markets. At a price of P100 per battle, they can now sell 100 battles per month.
“In our case, it’s the DAR who transports our products for our clients in Panay island particulalry those in Iloilo,” he said, adding that those that need to be delievered in other localities within Negros Occidental are sent through buses.
Recognizing the need to sustain the program, DAR-Western Visayas is making sure that the quality of the products, aside from the packaging and presentation, is not sacrificed.
Lena said focal persons in each of the provinces are ensuring that products have been screened and approved for launching before it can be posted to Arbo Merkado Facebook page.
This means that the Arbos have undergone necessary training like product development, value-adding, packaging and labeling, as well as marketing, among others.
Lena said these training are provided by the DAR along with other converging agencies like the Department of Agriculture (DA), Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Department of Science and Technology (DOST), Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda), among others.
Their products have to pass through certain standards, she said, adding that food products sold through Arbo Merkado Facebook page are approved by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA).
DA-Western Visayas records showed that there are currently 903 Arbos in the region comprising a total of 65,850 member-ARBs.
In Negros Occidental alone, which has the largest area covered under Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (Carp), there are 37,710 ARBs.
Lena said the agency looks forward to assisting more farmer-beneficiaries, especially on promoting their products and generating income through the Arbo Merkado Facebook page.
Through the virtual market platform, she said, they target to help farmers in the region particularly those ready for business enterprising.
The agency will also be working on capaciting Arbos in managing and sustaining their own social media accounts, like Facebook, so they can eventually market and sell the products on their own.
It is also looking at the possibility of linking the Arbos’ products to various delivery applications to further boost the income opportunity for them.
“We want the farmers to realize that if they just use the platform well, they can really improve their economic way of life,” Lena said.
She added that, “we like them to become entrepreneurs, that they would not just remain as farmers."
For her part, Assistant Regional Director Lucrecia Taberna urged the public to support the farmers in the region by liking and sharing the Arbo Merkado Facebook page.
"This is just the start of many initiatives and interventions of the agency through various social media platforms," she added.
For Hecarba, its president said they look forward to having their food processing building to ensure safety and quality of their products.
The organization is working on further empowering its members, boosting their knowledge and skills on using the technology, so they can eventually have their own online marketing platform showcasing more quality yet affordable products.
“The Arbo Merkado has given us, aspiring farmer-entrepreneurs, the hope to stay strong and overcome this pandemic,” Estama said, adding that it has allowed them to improve our lives by transforming challenges into opportunities.