By Catherine Dela, Jonah May Nueca, and Raphaela Ann Manalo, UPLB Interns
The city of General Santos in South Cotabato is one of the highly urbanized cities in the Philippines. In 2019, GenSan as the city is popularly known, was recognized as the “City of Charm” at the biggest trade event in China called China-ASEAN Expo or CAEXPO. GenSan championed its trade and economic opportunities with the city’s promising performance in the sectors of agriculture and manufacturing as well as the rise of infrastructures and eco-tourism. These key sectors become a significant contributor to GenSan’s economic growth. While regarded as the tuna capital, the city is also an exporter of crops such as corn, banana, pineapple, and coconut because of its rich soil and favorable climate. However, beyond its status, farmers in the upland communities still struggle to earn just like other farmers from different regions of the country. Because of this, farmers maximize their income by adopting value addition and diversification strategies. One of which is the processing of coco sugar.
In the small sitio of Paopao in Barangay Sinawal, General Santos City, which is relatively higher-yielding in sap production, McZel is located. The name McZel is a combination of the names of the owners— Marc Louie Soto and Layzel Bocol-Soto. With the 650 to 800 meter elevation, the sitio is a desirable area to cultivate coconut. Although McZel started in October 2018, the cultivation of coconuts and processing of coco sugar is not new for Layzel at all; as she grew up learning from her father since she was a kid. But prior to the establishment of the business, Layzel was a rice cake vendor in schools in the upland community while McLoy works in construction projects. Layzel decided to continue her father’s work as a source of extra income for her family.
There are two major by-products of coconut. From the nut itself, coconut water and coconut meat can be extracted in which the latter is for copra used in making coconut oil. The shell can be grounded for activated carbon, while the husk is turned into coir used as planting material. On the other hand, the sap is the liquid extracted from the coconut flower which is used in making coco sugar, lambanog, or vinegar. According to Jonathan Joson, a consultant of McZel, the technology available in the Philippines for coco sugar is not advanced. It is processed through cooking and baking either in liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or firewood. Once set, it is placed in an industrial oven to turn into sugar. It is then passed through a mesh or screen to get a finer texture. Coco sugar comes in different colors predominantly white which is mainly used in beverage making, cream, or dark used for processing chocolates.
Coco sugar is regarded as relatively higher in value compared to muscovado because of its tedious process which means that can also be expensive. Further, there are also a lot of other factors to consider such as harvesting in terms of safety, and time, i.e., sap must be extracted every 4-5 hours because it can easily ferment. There is also a decreasing number of “mananggete” or tappers in the area and the remaining ones are aged between 30-40 years old.
However, with an already available facility and sufficient knowledge, Layzel strived and took over the operations which caused positive changes in the family. Operations were smoother as Layzel is generally more hands-on with the production process, sanitation, and timeliness. From 2018 to March 2020, McZel was able to produce an average of five to seven tons monthly. McZel was also challenged by the pandemic but eventually recovered as the economy and demand recovered, too. The continuation of production amidst the pandemic was strengthened by the resumption of orders from partner-consumers as well as McZel’s desire to recover with its community in Sitio Paopao involving the mananggetes who supply the sap.
The partnership between McZel and GlowCorp which started as experimental has now been over a year. GlowCorp orders between two or two and a half tons of coco sugar from McZel every 4 or 5 months and as of 2022, four transactions have already been made.
GlowCorp rotates its orders due to transactions with other farmer associations. Despite this, the benefit of GlowCorp’s orders reaches McZel’s partner mananggetes which is around 14 to 20 farmers depending on the volume of orders from different consumers, while around 10-15 smallholder farmers are rented of their areas which means an extra income for them. Meanwhile, McZel also has 8-10 workers who are processors, kitchen staff, and packers although efficiency can already be achieved with 5-6 people, according to Layzel. It is McZel’s way to continue to recover with its community; and by also adopting a rotation in laborers since staff members are in need of income due to the pandemic. Further, with the ongoing operations of McZel, Layzel was also able to provide a better life for her family. They were able to buy a bonggo which is a small delivery vehicle needed for operations, renovated their house, and provided gadgets for the online learning of her kids.