Suddenly, it would seem that we live in a sustainable world.

Go to the nearest mall or weekend market, and you will soon find a growing number of sustainable products—from sustainable coffee and tablea, to recycled bags and organic soaps supplied by small and medium enterprises—joining the legions of fast-moving consumer goods produced by the multinationals.

In a span of a few years, sustainability has become quite the household word. It has also paved the way for a paradigm shift in the way companies do business. “It’s no longer ‘business as usual’ where you run a business with only profit in mind,” says Ana Tan, programme and public relations manager of the British Council, whose “I Am a Changemaker” (IAC) competition is ushering in a new breed of social entrepreneurs that act as change agents for society. “Social entrepreneurship is changing the face of business by spotting social problems and issues and finding innovative ways to address them,” she says.

A deeply developed industry in the United Kingdom, the concept of social enterprise is still young in the Philippine setting but steadily gaining momentum with the popularity of companies like Rags2Riches and Hapinoy. To further encourage the growth of this particular industry, the British Council, in partnership with Starbucks Coffee International, has been holding its annual “I Am a Changemaker” competition to provide R100,000 as seed money to youth organizations with the best social enterprise ideas.

Planting S.E.E.D.S.

Many forget that sustainability, a concept that’s all the rage today, actually had its roots in agriculture. With problems like population growth, climate change and nutritionally compromised food already reaching a tipping point, agriculture entrepreneurs were prompted to improve traditional farming methods.

This is also the direction taken by IAC Luzon winner and recipient of the Starbucks Recipient Award, Seed Core Enterprises, whose Planting S.E.E.D.S. project aims to create a community program that will organize rural- or forest-based communities to plant cacao as a reforestation species to service the growing demand for chocolate in the local and international markets.

Seed Core Enterprises had already been planting coffee trees as a reforestation program. “Planting S.E.E.D.S. stands for ‘Planting for Social, Economic and Environmental Development and Sustainability,” shares Roberto Crisostomo, co-founder of Seed Core Enterprises. “The premise was, there’s a lot of forests being denuded in the Mindanao area by loggers and mining companies,” he says, “and the only way we found for them to dissolve that was by making communities attached to the area so they can protect it themselves. So they started planting coffee trees.”

Their eventual move to plant cacao trees instead of coffee, Crisostomo shares, made more sense because there was less competition. “The Philippines is one of the few countries that can produce cacao, which only grows in the equatorial belt,” he says, adding that even with so much potential, the Philippines only produces a low 6,000MT (metric tons) of cacao. “Indonesia is doing around 600,000MT, which is a hundred times more than our current production,” he shares.

Compound that with President Aquino’s National Greening Program, which issued a mandate to plant 1.5 billion trees in 1.5 million hectares of land from 2011 to 2016, and that spells a lot of potential. “The problem with tree-planting programs in the past, however, is that there is no continuity because people do not really pay attention to the trees once they’re planted,” says Crisostomo, “but if you plant crops like coffee, cacao and fruit trees, there is an incentive for people to maintain the trees because every year they make money out of it.”

A ‘sexy’ commodity

Seed Core’s Planting S.E.E.D.S.’s end product is currently the cacao bean, which it sells as raw material to international chocolate manufacturers. “Aside from the regular commodity we’re supplying, ideally we really want to create a Chocolate café—that’s my goal,” shares Crisostomo. “There’s also plans of manufacturing our own chocolate bars and we’re trying to think of a brand called either Islas Cacao or Islands Cacao, which will be promoting different regions around the Philippines that grow Cacao,” he says.

Currently, the challenge is really getting people interested in the project. “The sad thing about the Philippines is that sometimes you have to be recognized abroad for people to see the value of what you are doing. If you get into the detail of creating good quality chocolate, sometimes if you start here and are not present anywhere else, they won’t value it—even if you can actually compete on an international scale,” shares Crisostomo, pointing out that The Times of London even named the Davao White Chocolate Nibble Bar as one of the 10 best chocolate bars in the world in September 2010.

“Getting the product out there allows Filipinos to see that good products can actually be borne out of the Philippines and that social enterprises, which are normally seen as small scale, can have the capacity to reach international markets,” he shares, adding that the main reason they chose to get into chocolate is because “it’s a sexy commodity.

When we talk about reforestation,” he says, “it doesn’t get that much attention because it’s ‘just a tree planting program,’ but when you bring chocolate into the equation, it makes it a little bit sexier. You can make chocolate events, chocolate-laced alcohol—everyone loves chocolate so it gives you that added x-factor when we’re out promoting our reforestation programs. The product itself is something that makes people take a second look.”

Published in the January 9, 2012 issue of the Manila Bulletin.