The founders of the agri-ecommerce platform made sure that this time, farmers won’t get the short end of the stick.
Bringing Filipino farmers online is no easy task, to say the least—especially in a sector that has largely been traditional for decades.
There may be a ton of things to consider in mounting such an initiative, but for the founders of Mayani.ph, the driving force behind efforts to help farmers earn a just income, it boils down to one crucial question:
“How come the very people feeding an entire nation are falling deeper and deeper into poverty?” asked Mayani CEO JT Solis.
This sad irony in Philippine agriculture compelled JT and his co-founders to spark a tech revolution for the farmers. Mayani.ph is a fast-growing agri-ecommerce platform that partners with small holder farmers across different parts of the country. Launched in 2019, the farm-to-table platform helps farmers who are unable to sell and market their produce by linking them to a wider customer base. Their mission is to uplift the livelihood of Filipino farmers by getting people to buy food through e-commerce.
So far, Mayani.ph has onboarded over 12,000 smallholder farmers, including the Mattadi tomato farmers from Quirino, the Formosa pineapple farmers from Camarines Norte, and the camote farmers from Nueva Vizcaya, to name a few.
During our hour-long interview with JT, he told us about the struggles of the Malaruhatan farmers in Lian, Batangas. He first heard about them in a conversation with one of his co-founders, Ochie San Juan, as they were starting Mayani.ph.
“The farmers always harvest rice but they can’t seem to find a good customer for it, no one seems to want to buy the rice. Even if they find a customer, no one seems to be willing to buy the rice at the price that the farmers are able to recover their cost of inputs and production. That is what’s happening back then,” JT explained.
The same struggle is real for many Filipino farmers all over the country. The problem, JT said, lies in the inefficiencies that plague the agri-food supply chain.
In the past, farmers would rely on six or seven middlemen before their produce would reach the buyers. With Mayani.ph, the supply chain is much simpler: from farmer to Mayani to the buyers.
Eliminating the middlemen made the supply chain more efficient, and in turn, Mayani.ph was able to drive farmgate prices by an average of about 50% to 80%. This meant a 50% rise in farmers’ income and, at the same time, lower prices for customers. For swift payments, Mayani.ph has also introduced digital payments to farmers through credit or debit cards and mobile wallet apps like GCash powered by PayMongo.
“In simple words, the farmers weren’t getting the love they deserve. At the same time, the consumers weren’t getting the price they deserve. So, we changed things for the better,” JT said.
Of course, getting farmers onboard the platform was a different story.
“The thing with agri-technology is it’s both hi-tech and high-touch. Just because you built a product doesn’t mean farmers will come,” he said.
Majority of Filipino farmers are still one of the poorest sectors in the country, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). Part of Mayani.ph’s identity is understanding the plight of the “bottom billion”—which refers to a proportion of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged populations.
To ensure that Mayani.ph is able to onboard as many farmers as possible, their Chief Farmer Ochie San Juan would go around the country and talk to several farmers’ cooperatives. San Juan has over three decades of experience in agriculture.
“From there, Ochie was able to onboard a lot of these farmers. The network of trust is very critical, the social capital is very critical. The community engagement in the grassroots is very critical,” JT said, adding:
“For us, the holy grail of adoption of any technology would always be heavy adoption by the bottom billion. That’s sort of our philosophy."
More than disrupting the agri-food supply chain, Mayani.ph also aims to address food loss and remove the bottlenecks that come with transporting produce. Citing a study by the Benguet State University, JT said about 6 out of 10 of the crops that get harvested go to waste before it reaches the consumer. That’s why Mayani.ph practices Just in Time logistics—wherein products are delivered only as they are needed.
“The problem is that a lot of the farmers have been blindly harvesting in the hope that they can sell it. What we did was the reverse. We made it demand driven: We’re talking about x number kilos of this, that’s what farmers harvest and that’s what we transport to the market. So we are able to minimize food loss and at the same time make our agri supply chain very efficient,” JT said.
Things fell into place when the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) tapped Mayani.ph for a monthly event called the ‘Grand Bagsakan’— where customers can buy a variety of fresh produce straight from local farmers and cooperatives at competitive prices.
Eventually, Mayani.ph’s partnership with the DTI came in handy because it enabled them to tap the latter’s resources, such as 10-tonner trucks, to mobilize tons of produce both from the highlands and the lowlands.
On top of major typhoons and other barriers farmers face, the height of pandemic-induced mobility restrictions in 2020 made selling and transporting vegetables more complicated for them.
With stores closed and borders sealed, farmers were forced to throw away tons of harvest due to lack of buyers. This happened at around the same time when thousands of urban poor residents clamored for food and financial aid from the government during the harsh lockdown. The situation brought two stories of hunger to the fore: farmers who were unable to sell tons of produce and the urban poor who got little to no food or aid.
Fast forward to April 2021, when a new phenomenon called community pantries took neighborhoods across the country by storm. The idea was that people could give whatever they could share and take as much supplies as they need.
The movement did not go unnoticed by Mayani.ph. JT said a lot of their customers were buying so many vegetables, like a hundred chopseuy baskets, and told them they were donating these to the community pantries.
To help the movement, Mayani.ph launched the Pilipinas Pantry Network in partnership with Team Manila, Iskaparate, Kasagana Ka Coop, Multisys, and Pilipinas Shell Foundation. The project is a separate digital platform that lets donors buy vegetables from farmers connected to Mayani.ph and matches them to their chosen community pantries.
The impact-driven agri-tech startup also partnered with other civic organizations, such as the BTS Army Bayanihan led by fans of the world’s most popular band, BTS.
“We’re the only farm-to-table partner of [BTS Army Bayanihan]. They’re not just fans raving about how cool BTS is. What we really like about them is they’re really civic-minded and impact-driven as a fandom,” JT said.
With farming oftentimes being referred to as a “poor man’s job,” it can be hard to break the stigma attached to agriculture as a profession—making it a less attractive career choice for the younger generation. JT, who worked for almost half a decade in investment banking before moving to e-commerce, sees things differently. For him, it was the way to go in terms of having a career that is more exciting. "It kind of brings a unique adrenaline rush," he said.
Before co-founding Mayani.ph, JT observed the emergence of several technology platforms but saw how there were only a few of them driven by what he described as “tangible and measurable impact”.
"There's always a way for you to be able to marry impact and a sustainable business model. Those two things aren't mutually exclusive," JT said.
What Mayani.ph strives to achieve is to make agriculture a haven of opportunities by driving measurable and positive impact to the lives of small holder farmers, and in turn address problems of food security in the country.
"We know it’s not sexy, it’s very traditional," JT said. "The fact that it addresses a very basic human need, I think it’s something worth tackling."