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The courage to lead: How a social development practitioner is helping shape better lives for farmers

“Someone advised me when I was younger that by 30 years old, you should already know what you want to be involved in.”

These words would guide Maria Teresa “Techu” Tumbali throughout the early years in her career. Techu has spent most of her life as a social development advocate and practitioner. She has worked in several institutions including the Development Bank of the Philippines, Technology and Livelihood Resource Center, and UCPB-CIIF Finance and Development Foundation. In 2019, she joined Agriterra as a business advisor and is currently working as its Country Representative. Agriterra is an international agri-agency specializing in cooperative development. Meeting Filipino farmers and seeing their lives up close opened her eyes to the reality of Philippine agriculture.

“The first time I went to the Bondoc Peninsula, it was so far and the roads were really rough. I saw a huge difference in their world and mine. It’s one of those experiences that changed me. So I said, we really need to help these people.”

Her experience navigating difficult terrains made Techu realize how difficult it is to deliver help to farmers in the remote regions. But these experiences are nothing compared to what farmers have to face in their everyday lives. This inspires her to keep doing her work on the ground.

“Sometimes I think about all the farmers who are still in need of help, and that’s already enough to keep doing the work that we do.”

Closing the gap

Seeing the growing problems in agriculture such as poverty and climate change, Techu believes that we should make the agriculture sector a priority because it is what feeds the country.

She sees the important role of local government units in providing farmers their basic needs through programs that can improve farmers’ quality of life. Techu recalls coming up with a program to help an LGU in the South in analyzing priority needs of the farmers so the local government can identify the type of support that they need and can provide.

“Farmers are the first ones to be impacted by typhoons. One typhoon can destroy a farm and just like that, their livelihood is gone. That’s just one typhoon, and we are visited by 20-21 typhoons each year. We need to take care of them because without them, we will go hungry.”

For Techu, the biggest challenge is improving the quality of life of the farmers amidst the many calamities in the country. She thinks we should also focus on including a resiliency plan for farmers and agri-cooperatives to help them withstand the effects of environmental shocks and mitigate the effects of disasters.

“There’s plenty of things we can do such as giving our farmers support so they can have access to post-disaster credit and climate-based insurance for example. We should think about how we can get the farmers insured. How can we help cooperatives get back on their feet after a calamity?”

Agriterra assists farmers to become ‘climate-clever cooperatives’ through climate-smart practices such as incorporating regenerative agricultural practices and proper waste management to help them adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Techu believes that another solution that is worth exploring is to look at thriving agriculture systems in other countries as models to improve our own. Agriterra's global link to countries who saw success in their agricultural programs should be leveraged to help our agriculture sector in the Philippines.

“In Agriterra, we have learning exchanges where we bring officers of a cooperative from the Philippines to successful cooperatives in other countries like the Netherlands. When they get there, they see the difference but at the same time, it opens their eyes about the possibilities. Here in the Philippines, we already have big cooperatives. It's all about nurturing them so they can also inspire others.”

Through Agritterra’s global ties, Techu was able to widen her perspective and saw how our country’s agriculture is still world’s apart from others. She attributes the success of other countries in seeing the value in agriculture and investing in their farmers who are the most important players in the value chain. She hopes to see the same in the Philippines.

“If we look at Vietnam, they were ravaged by the war in the 60s, but now they are becoming more progressive. They are developing good technology and their agriculture is flourishing. We can learn from other countries.”

The potential in women and youth

Women in agriculture are often seen in the shadow of their husbands. In most cases, they have little involvement in decision making and less access to opportunities. For Techu who has been working in the agriculture industry for many years, she believes women have immense potential and should also be a priority.

“We have female leadership training where we select female leaders from the cooperatives because we believe in the potential of women as leaders.”

In the Philippines, there are guidelines for cooperatives to set up Gender and Development (GAD) committees to oversee programs and activities in gender mainstreaming and women empowerment. However, there are instances when these GAD committees become inactive. To address this challenge, Agriterra strengthens women’s position in cooperatives in rural areas through value chain leadership training that increases women’s knowledge and improves their skills on leadership, gender and diversity.

Her work in Agriterra has also taken her to the most remote regions including conflict-affected areas. Techu shares that it is even more difficult for farmers to thrive when they also have to face problems brought about by conflict on top of the challenges of poverty, climate change, and limited access to support and resources.

In her previous job, she implemented an Islamic Microfinance Program for the wives of coconut farmers, her company's contribution towards peace and progress in Mindanao.

She also emphasized investing in the youth. The average age of farmers is between 57 and 59 years old and there is already a declining interest in agriculture. Techu shares that this is not surprising considering that farmers are often painted as the image of struggle and poverty. To solve this problem, she hopes for programs focusing on encouraging the youth to explore career opportunities in agriculture. Techu believes that by addressing the gaps, we can make the agriculture sector more enticing for the younger generations.

The power of cooperatives

Working with specialists in cooperative development, Techu knows that when farmers come together, they have a better chance for growth. Through cooperatives, farmers can work together by sharing resources, reducing costs, and gaining better access to bigger markets, financial services, and even grants and training opportunities that help them increase their productivity.

Techu’s work in Agriterra provides sustainable services to help cooperatives analyze their priority needs and work on addressing them.