Press Release
October 4, 2017

Speech of Senator Cynthia Villar
ASEAN Business Advisory Council
ASEAN Agriculture Summit

Theme: "Agripreneurship: The Gamechanger towards Prosperity for All"
SMX Convention Center, Pasay City

[Greetings] Thank you very much to the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (BAC) for inviting me to be part of this event-the ASEAN Agriculture Summit. I am happy and honored to be here with all of you today.

First of all, the theme of this summit- "Agripreneurship: The Gamechanger towards Prosperity for All", is something that I really believe in, as a long-time advocate of entrepreneurship and as the current chairperson of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food.

So, I am glad that it is being highlighted here, in an event organized by the ASEAN BAC, which was created as by ASEAN Leaders "to serve as the Apex Business Council to put together and champion private sector concerns and feedback to boost ASEAN's efforts towards faster and more inclusive economic integration". That really proves that agri-entrepreneurship will be the key to shared prosperity among our countries.

The timing could not have been more perfect also because we are in the midst of regional economic integration under the ASEAN Economic Community or AEC.

Moreover, across the region, due to fast-growing population, food security is really a priority agenda. ASEAN member countries have in fact adopted the ASEAN Integrated Food Security Framework and Strategic Plan of Action on Food Security in ASEAN. The goal of which is to ensure long-term food security and to improve the livelihoods of farmers in the ASEAN region.

Those are also in line with my personal advocacy and legislative priority. So, I truly support this first step towards crafting and actualizing an integrated framework for agri-preneurship as an integral component to a prosperous Philippine agriculture. Let me emphasize that that prosperity will not come to pass, unless we work together in improving the plight of farmers, fisherfolks and agricultural workers as well as in removing all the barriers that prevent them from being more competitive and successful.

Filipino farmers and fisherfolks, until now, remain among the poorest in the Philippines, an agricultural country. It is long overdue and we have to remedy that situation. Poverty figures since the 1980s show that the concentration of the poor has been in the agriculture sector. And poverty incidence among farmers, at any given time in recent decades, has been higher than the average for the whole country. By far, coconut farmers are the poorest, earning less than 50 pesos a day. Agricultural workers are also among the lowest paid in the country.

We also need to zero in on removing the barriers that keep Filipino farmers from being more successful and profitable including lack of technical expertise, inadequate access to cheap credit and lack of mechanization and financial literacy. I believe that those are also the same barriers that will keep them from become agri-entrepreneurs.

In assessing the problems of farmers and fisherfolks, I have become more convinced that agri-entrepreneurship is the long-term solution to lifting them out of poverty. Increasing food production and farm productivity alone cannot move them permanently out of poverty. We must also teach small farmers capacity-building strategies and approaches to level up their knowledge and knowhow to help them to operate their small farms as agri-businesses.

But before they can become good entrepreneurs and businessmen, they need to be trained and educated first. That will remove the barriers of lack of technical expertise and financial literacy. You'd be surprised to know that many of them do not even know how to apply for a simple loan. That is why I asked Land Bank and other government banks to perhaps have a special facility or area that will cater specially to small farmers' financial requirements. Because even if the credit or financing was available, they do not know how to access it.

Thus, as a legislator, there is a conscious effort on my part to make sure that my proposed bills in the Senate have a provision or component that will support training, education, mechanization, research and development. These include the enactment into law of Republic Act (RA) 10848 or the act extending the period of implementation of the Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund up to year 2022. You see, in 2010, ACEF loans and grants were stopped due to collection issues. ACEF was supposed to expire on December of 2015 and we successfully passed the extension of the ACEF law. ACEF can provide a level field in access to not only education and training, but opportunities to modernize and mechanize existing facilities or operations.

Eighty percent (80%) of the (ACEF) fund will be in the form of credit with minimal interest, which shall not exceed five million pesos per project loan to cooperatives; and maximum of one million pesos to small farmers. For the remainder of the fund of 20 percent-ten percent (10%) will be extended as grants for research and development (R&D) of agricultural and fishery products, and the commercialization of such, including the upgrading of research facilities, of qualified state universities and colleges (SUCs); and ten percent (10%) will be used for the funding of a comprehensive scholarship and attractive grant-in-aid program for agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and veterinary medicine education, to be implemented by the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd).

Besides the ACEF law, in all the other bills I have authored for the fisheries, sugar and other agricultural sectors, that have been passed into law, I made sure that there is an allocation of adequate funds to provide for R&D and further education/training/improvement of farmers, fisherfolks and agricultural workers.

As the primary author of the Farm Tourism Development Law or Republic Act (RA) 10816, I also emphasized training and education under the law. It is provided there that the Agricultural Training Institute and TESDA "shall encourage farm tourism camps to become learning sites and accredited extension service providers, and the TESDA shall accredit farm tourism camps as technical vocational institutions for agriculture and tourism courses".

I am also pleased to say that the passage of the farm tourism law has also paved the way for many smallholder farmers, who own a farm, however small it may be, to convert it into a farm tourism site. Many of them are now managing their farms as a business. It has become a win-win situation for them-they farm, they accept tourists or visitors to their farms and for those who have a school or learning site, they can also accept trainees/students. So, that's three sources of income. And they do not even have to leave their farms.

Through further training and education also, farmers are learning new methods of doing things as well as new equipment to help them. Coconut farmers for example, whom I have cited as among the poorest. They are now aware that by merely intercropping coconut with other crops such as coffee or cacao, the could earn PhP10,000 a month. Moreover, if they plant using the new variety of coconut seedlings, their nut harvest can triple from 40 nuts per tree to 150 nuts per tree. As for the rice farmers, if they use the inbred seedlings of our Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), they can increase their production from four metric tons per hectare (4MT/ha) to six metric tons (6MT/ha), which will make our country self-sufficient in rice. And it will also double the income of rice farmers.

I also believe that agri-entrepreneurship will also address the concern raised by many that Filipino farmers are getting old (with an average age of 57), thus the need to get the youth interested in agriculture. For one, we need to dispel their belief that farming is merely about planting crops or tilling the land. The young ones should realize that there are a lot of exciting opportunities and untapped potential in the agriculture sector. Agri-entrepreneurship has made agriculture more interesting for them.

There are truly many opportunities in agri-business. Of course, topmost is the fact that since the Philippines is an agricultural country and two-thirds of our population is directly or indirectly involved with agriculture-the sector is relevant to our country's social and economic growth and sustainability. Second, over 99 percent of businesses in our country are micro, small and medium enterprises or MSMEs, a large majority of which are involved in food and beverage-industries fuelled by the agriculture sector.

While there is no doubt by now that agripreneurship is indeed the gamechanger towards prosperity for all, we must nonetheless continuously work towards removing, or at least, ease the barriers or challenges faced by smallholder agri businesses. In the same way, that we have been removing the barriers that get in the way of the success of farmers and fisherfolks, majority of whom are the agripreneurs themselves.

On that note, thank you once again and more power to all of us!

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