Chris Catto=Smith - FreshPort

Philippines - Navigating martial law and army checkpoints to get bananas to market

Chris Catto-Smith owner of FreshPort Asia has worked on many agro-logistics and supply chain projects during his time in Southeast Asia. Chris has a genuine passion for what he does and has been involved in many Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability projects which have changed the lives and fortunes of farmers over the whole region.

“My energy and my passion lie in using my knowledge and experience and a bit of ESG funding from my own company Freshport (Asia). One project I worked on was in the southern Philippines, where the large agro companies were taking over massive amounts of traditional lands and turning them into banana plantations, displacing traditional farmers. The USDA engaged me, to look at how we could help small scale banana farmers improve cold chain handling quality and allow their produce reach national markets by ferry in good condition.

"The challenge was these small-scale farmers were predominantly from Agusan del Nord area which even now is subject to political unrest and armed suppression of rebel activities in Mindanao. There are many different variations of rebels in the South. The more west you go, the more extremist the groups become, but the further east you go, you go into the traditional lands now dominated by the New People’s Army (NPA), They take refuge in the mountain areas surrounding the land that has been taken over by the agro companies and what they've done is really tough as they control their entire supply chain from end to end forcing local farmers to buy sell and share production with the Agro conglomerates."

Getting through the check points

The project which Chris got involved in was small scale access to markets. He worked with the Metro retail group in the Philippines who committed to sourcing in a way to alleviate poverty and encourage local varieties of produce instead of the monocultures from the agro companies. According to Chris the owner is very altruistic and wanted to do the right thing by Filipino farmers and vulnerable communities.

Wanted posters

“With most produce having to be transported in inter-island ferries highly vulnerable to extreme weather and a poor cold chain, perishable logistics can be an almost insurmountable challenge in the Philippines. The Metro group was facing difficulties to supply all its national stores with staples like fish, bananas and other fresh produce and in particular to try and link vulnerable farming groups to market. I had recently undertaken a cold chain project for milk-fish quality improvement so was able to look at banana production with my colleagues Ms Mathilde Tran and an agro financing specialist. We went into the mountains of Anticala near Butuan City, where there was martial law declared, it was quite a terrible situation. There was a lot of reprisals against the large agro companies. The month we were there one of the agro companies had lost around 1000 banana trees which were cut down by the local rebel groups.

"The NPA rebels, and traditional landowners were becoming more active and there was a shoot on sight policy issued by the government. So, we went right up into the same mountains with an NPA negotiator, gifts of spam and tinned sardines, past the army checkpoints, the numerous lottery ticket booths and Selecta ice cream sales outlets and we looked at how we could help these very, very poor communities. It’s often the women who run these communities, as the men are all hiding and their faces appearing on wanted posters. We met with a local community leader who represented eight ethnic minority / vulnerable communities, she soon was able to describe the support she needs to get the local banana harvest to Butuan Port in good condition but was currently being blocked by the army due to martial law. We looked at several community farms each with only 10 or 20 banana trees and no coordinated logistics pickup service."

The whole downstream supply chain was broken, there was no route to market and the handling of small-scale producer bananas was appalling, and expensive development partner investments in produce handling was illogical and a waste of money. Chris and his team then worked with the retailer who said that if they could get the product to market if on pallets avoiding handling damage loading onto the interisland ferries. With a reasonable level of postharvest care, temperature control, and handling he would buy them in preference to the branded bananas. That was the challenge and opportunity.

“We spent a little bit of time understanding the supply chain, bottle necks and work arounds. We were then getting palletized, good condition bananas on the docks in the main town on the north of Mindanao, to allow loading onto the ferries and taken to market. These were for the domestic market, as Filipinos prefer their own bananas. The Cavendish bananas were all mainly for export anyway.”

The internal market had been getting the damaged Cavendish bananas, and the remainder was getting temperature damaged during the multiple tiers of wholesale and trader handoff. But most importantly they were able to bring local bananas to the port, palletised for loading on the ferries and access the main wholesale markets in Cebu and Manila. Chris also provided functional input for micro financing to enable growers to build collecting sheds. The micro financing covered growers to buy trucks to get the produce to the markets, they also used our NPA negotiator to allow the bananas to go through the army checkpoints without being destroyed.

Chris and NPA negotiator with the palletised bananas about to be loaded on the ferry

“It's an education. They just see bananas as way of moving weapons. It is understood that agreement from the NPA families was required not to use these particular bananas for anything that would be subject to a search. We had to get them to market and that was what we achieved.”

Palletised bananas make it to retail

The full banana story can be found on Freshport website

For more information:
Chris Catto-Smith
Freshport Asia
Tel: +66 81 7357617

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