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Growing together

October 18, 2019

RACHEL RENUCCI-TAN

Co-founder and President, Chen Yi Agventures Inc.

PATRICK FRANÇOIS RENUCCI

Co-founder and Senior Technical Consultant. Chen Yi Agventures Inc.

“Yes, we were living a happy and wealthy life, but as you age, somehow, money is [no longer] enough. We thought, maybe it’s time we changed our life and the way we earn our income.

Husband-and-wife team leads the charge to increase farmers’ productivity and cultivate world-class rice

“CRAZY!”

That was what the friends of Patrick François Renucci and Rachel Marjorie Renucci-Tan exclaimed when they learned the couple intended to turn their backs on their affluent life — an apartment overlooking the Eiffel Tower in Paris’ swanky Bois de Boulogne precinct, ski holidays in the French Alps, a summer home along the Riviera — to go help the people of Leyte who were left destitute by Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan).

“We were so shocked,” Renucci says as he recalls the searing images of the devastation wreaked by that super storm in November 2013. “Aid did not [seem to] come for many days. It really affected us.” The Italian-French industrialist, who has more than 20 years’ experience running large printing complexes, and his Filipino banker-wife, who was used to managing assets of over a billion US dollars in various continents, were immediately in sync in their response to the unprecedented calamity that swept her country. “We wondered how could we help the people recover,” he says.

That simple intention set off some heavy soul-searching in the Renuccis, which led to their seemingly drastic decision to venture into uncharted, if not dangerous territory. Renucci says: “Yes, we were living a happy and wealthy life, but as you age, somehow, money is [no longer] enough. We thought: Maybe it’s time we changed our life and the way we earn our income. Why don’t we go to Leyte and see what business we can set up together to give back to society?”

So, to a province on the road to slow rehabilitation the pair traveled in 2014. Venturing into food production was far from their thoughts when they arrived. That only occurred to them as they motored through the battered countryside, searching for options, says Tan-Ranucci, daughter of taipan Edward Tan of Baguio Oil, Philippine Blooming Mills, La Suerte Cigar and Cigarette Factory and ABC Channel 5 fame. “We saw so many rice fields, but no [post-harvest rice-processing] facilities,” her husband adds.

Fast forward to October 2019, the Chen Yi Agventures Rice Processing Center (RPC) in Alang-Alang, a second-class community 25 kilometers south of Tacloban City, is now humming with purpose — a testimony to the Renuccis’ firm resolve to fulfill their promise to help Leyteños get back on their feet. Even losing P40 million, thanks to the dishonesty of people they hired early on to oversee the construction of planned buildings, and which they still have to recover, has not dimmed their commitment. President Rodrigo Duterte, who toured the two-hectare facility in August, was so impressed by its operations that he offered Renucci Filipino citizenship.

RPC was born out of a thoughtfully designed business model, based on the concerns and issues shared by 4,000 farmers in a survey the Renuccis commissioned in 2016. “You want to help, but you don’t know how,” says Renucci. “The survey’s findings helped us to understand better the farmers’ situation. One of the things we learned was they felt no one cared about them.”

Hardly progressed

According to Renucci, rice production, if not farming in general in the Philippines, has hardly progressed. Unlike their counterparts in more developed countries in the West or even in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Vietnam, Filipino farmers continue to be prisoners of poverty. This is because of several factors, among them lack of access to reliable supply of seeds and failure to mechanize on account of meager capital and indebtedness to loan sharks. Many farmers, the Frenchman says, actually work on very small plots measuring one hectare on average. It’s more like a backyard activity and less like a professionally run enterprise

Renuccci confers with his team at their Makati depot on the day’s deliveries

“When I visit the other big cities around the Philippines, I see things have become better… the middle class is growing very fast…With all these improvements, there’s no reason for our farmers to lag behind.

“Some of them are not really tenants, but only caretakers for owners who reside in the cities or abroad. They have no contracts and can be removed any time. So, they have no initiative to improve the land,” Renucci says. The alarming absence of young people — logically the farmers of tomorrow — who migrate to the cities to work in call centers or go overseas, is also another concern.

Aware of the complex socioeconomic environment they deal with has made the transplanted couple more determined to use their combined expertise in management and finance to revolutionize local rice production. “We need to change mindsets and the way people look at the farm,” Renucci says.

They set up the Renucci Partnership Program, which they believe, could serve as a catalyst in altering attitudes. Through it, their company Chen Yi organizes farmer-members by providing low-interest loans in kind: fertilizers, pesticides and high-quality inbred seeds from the Philippine Rice Research Institute. It also extends high-tech planting and harvesting equipment to all farmer-members and deploys rice technicians to the farms to monitor crop growth. Overall, performance has been promising, with some program participants achieving around 200 cavans from their one-hectare plot compared with the previous 50 to 60 cavans. “Productivity has increased 10 times more,” Renucci announces with obvious pride.

The couple surrounded by Dalisay rice
Engaging their youngest constituents
Renucci with a farmer friend
A snapshot from their old life in Europe.

What the Alang-Alang rice hub is tasked to do is best explained on its website: “The Chen Yi Agventures Rice Processing Center is the most technologically advanced [center of its kind] in Southeast Asia. Fully automated, the entire production process is centralized and operated from touchscreen panels in a single control room. Palay (unmilled rice) is stored in various temperature-controlled wet bins before and after drying by multiple high-powered biomass dryers in order to maintain its freshness. Palay is then stored in silos with temperature held constant 21 degrees, keeping the palay freshly harvested for more than a year.

“Palay is electronically weighted to avoid cheating. It is pre-cleaned before drying to guarantee clean and pest-free dried paddies, ready for state-of-the-art milling. The RPC deploys Japanese technology that purifies the air emitted into its dust room, purging dust and dirt from the drying and milling process, so that only clean air is blown out into the environment. Leveraging technology and meticulous, technically precise sorting of seed varieties, Chen Yi delivers delicious, aromatic, clean, pest- and pesticide-free rice to the Filipino people.”

Help should not be equated with charity, according to Renucci-Tan. “When we sell the rice, that’s when we will make money. And we intend to make good profits there,” she says. “It has to be a win-win situation for all the stakeholders. If we cannot help ourselves, we cannot help others.

“We want to show not only Leyte, but [also] the world that a sustainable business is possible and that the Philippines can produce world-class rice.” Dalisay, the fruit of those labors, is distributed across Metro Manila in major supermarkets such as SM, Robinsons, Puregold and Landmark. Prices start at 174 pesos for a two-kilogram sack to 1,295 pesos for a 25 kilogram sack. Says public relations specialist and Dalisay convert Jingjing Romero: “For the first time in a long, long time, I am eating healthy rice. This brings back childhood memories of consuming unadulterated Milagrosa rice in my grandparents’ home in San Jose, Nueva Ecija!”

Blind date

The Renuccis met in Paris on a blind date in 2004, with Renucci following Renucci-Tan back to the Philippines that same year on the pretext he was attending a friend’s birthday party.“He didn’t know anybody there at the time,” Renucci-Tan impishly confides. They married three years later at the picturesque Taal Vista Lodge, now Taal Vista Hotel. Thanks to that union, Renucci has gone beyond the negative images of his wife’s homeland to appreciate aspects that only one physically immersed here would experience. He says: “When I first came here in 2004, I was surprised to find an international city — [parts of] Makati, like Greenbelt, had nice buildings. Now, there is BGC (Bonifacio Global City), which is a world-class city.

“When I visit the other big cities around the Philippines, I see things have become better. Before, there was only the rich and poor. Now, the middle class is growing very fast, and more and more Filipinos are receiving a good education. I’m very happy to be here.

“With all these improvements, there’s no reason for our farmers to lag behind.”

The journey of the Renuccis is far from over, but it has certainly been a fate-defining one. “I brought the man of my life from Paris to Alang-Alang,” Renucci-Tan says. “Instead of dining at Joel Robuchon (a multi-awarded chef), we eat at Reggie’s karinderya [a Filipino-type café].”

“In the beginning, people looked at us as if we were strange,” her spouse adds. “After five years, they now trust us because they see that we’re here for good.”

For good. And together with the farmers of Leyte.

* * *

WHY CAN’T THEY?

Like the rest of us, the Renuccis were baffled why the Philippines, an agricultural country, still has to import rice from its neighbors. Having immersed themselves for five years now in the countryside, they discovered some hard truths.

• Quality seedlings. Farmers have had difficulty sourcing for the right type of seeds that produce good, high-yield palay.

• Cycle of debt. To fund their small operations and feed their families, farmers have had to resort to money lenders charging exorbitant interest and exposing them to enduring indebtedness.

• Dearth of successors. Farmers’ children would rather work in the big cities or go overseas rather than see their future in farming.

PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN

Credit belongs to : www.manilatimes.net

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