It was in 2017 when the odds seemed to turn in Iloisa Romaraog’s favor: the market in her hometown of Baguio City finally indicated that it was ready for online grocery shopping.
A former analyst for a global tech company, Iloisa spent years dreaming about setting up her own online shop. When she and her business partner Cathy Suarez launched their online market Session Groceries, they named it after the eponymous Session Road that witnessed countless long nights and endless meetings.
But tragedy struck not long after: Typhoon Ompong made landfall north of the Philippines in September 2018, devastating the entire Cordillera Region. Both Iloisa and Cathy put Session Groceries on pause to volunteer in relief efforts: they crowdfunded goods and donations through social media, and helped deliver them to a group of evacuees from Itogon, Benguet.
With support from the local government, they both eventually trained the group to make rags out of excess clothing, using Session Groceries as a platform to sell their goods. Iloisa found herself enjoying the community work—a prelude to a calling very different from the one she had in mind.
Several tonnes of produce are packed at the Farmers' Center before heading out for delivery.
“Still, it didn’t feel like it was sustainable,” Iloisa says. “You could donate food and it would feed them for a day, but until when will that last?”
Little did she know that less than three months later, a second calamity would arrive in her hometown, and change her life.
In a second wave of selfless bayanihan, Session Groceries reached out to several farmers through Facebook and offered their platform as a new way to sell their goods.
In one of the more secluded farms in La Trinidad, Benguet, Romeo Gamutlong sits inside a small makeshift kubo, packing what’s left of his fresh cucumbers with old newspapers. This is how Iloisa catches him when we drop by to say hello, one sunny Friday morning.
Mang Romeo is a partner of Session Groceries, and has been a vegetable farmer in Benguet for over 20 years. In a small patch of land he rents from a nearby public university, Mang Romeo grows spinach, cucumber, romaine, and green ice lettuce. “Yan lang kasi ang kaya ng lupa,” he says.
Before partnering with Session Groceries, Mang Romeo sold his vegetables at the trading post in La Trinidad. Every morning, farmers like him would flock to the market, carrying sacks and truckloads of fruits and vegetables that traders bought for mass distribution. Because the selling price normally depended on supply and demand, these products were bought by traders at cost—sometimes even less. This meant that farmers rarely ever made profit; the best they could do was break even.
“Naranasan ko na 100 kilos yung dala ko sa market, pero 20 kilos lang doon yung napresyuhan ng tama. Thirty kilos second-class price. Fifty kilos doon, reject,” he says.
When the oversupply crisis hit Benguet farmers in January 2019, Mang Romeo was among those badly affected. Crops like romaine lettuce were reportedly sold for as low as Php10 to 20 per kilo, while potatoes and carrots were sold for Php15 to 35. The crisis was a result of several market factors, including a series of bad typhoons that ravaged the last quarter of 2018, delaying the harvest. Unable to sell their products, pictures and videos of farmers dumping truckloads of excess vegetables spread on social media, gaining the public’s sympathy online.
“When we saw what was happening [with the farmers], we decided to post another call for help,” Iloisa recalls.
In a second wave of selfless bayanihan, Session Groceries reached out to several farmers through Facebook, and offered their platform as a new way to sell their goods. Originally, Iloisa and Cathy had planned to deliver within Baguio and Benguet—by that point, Session Groceries had never made deliveries outside of Baguio City—but word got out as far as Metro Manila and other nearby cities. Eventually, they decided to expand their market to help connect farmers to more consumers.
To call those next few weeks rough would be putting it lightly. When the two decided to help the farmers, they had no plan: no warehouse, no transportation, no delivery system. They were hounded by problems left and right, from delivery drivers stealing their goods to customers complaining over the phone week after week. Iloisa calls it “the worst part” of their young business’ life. Fortunately, their kindness circled back, and the same people they helped during Typhoon Ompong offered their home in Itogon as a place for repacking.
When the worst of the crisis died down in February, the duo decided to step back and evaluate their work: Overwhelmed by the experience and the public’s positive response, they decided to fully integrate the advocacy into their business, ironing out operations and connecting with more farmers. By March, Session Groceries was back in business—this time, as a farm-to-table app that supported local farmers and advocated for fresh, locally-grown food.
Today, Session Groceries has over 2,000 partner farmers spread across Benguet, Cavite, Ilocos, Mindoro, and Pangasinan. Their business model is simple: for every sale they make, 30% of the profit goes directly to the farmer. By collapsing all unnecessary stages between producer and consumer, it is able to provide convenient and affordable options for consumers. And the best part? Farmers are finally earning the wages they deserve.
“Di na kami nalulugi,” says Mang Romeo, grinning so hard that the lines on his 65-year-old face soften to make him look younger. “May sarili na kaming market dahil sa Session Groceries.”
Overwhelmed by the experience and the public’s positive response, they decided to fully integrate the advocacy into their business.
From Mang Romeo’s farm, it’s a less than 10-minute drive to the farmer’s center—an outdoor parking lot about 50 meters wide and 100 meters long—where farmers and other drivers mill about on their way to or from the trading post. Small warehouses and karinderias surround the perimeter, and over at Stall #36 sits the modest, two-block warehouse of Session Groceries.
Iloisa gets to work the minute we arrive, checking up on her volunteers and going around to survey the packages lined along a corner of the warehouse. We arrive on a Friday, which means all deliveries need to be ready by the end of the day if they’re to make it to shipment on Saturday and Sunday. As we go through shelves of produce wrapped in newspaper, Iloisa stops by a corner and points at a cluster sitting quietly on a shelf basket.
“This is what I was telling you about,” she says, pointing to an orange sticker taped precariously on the newspaper. It read: “Fresh Ginger, 250 grams. Produced by Farm Care Food Products.”
The sticker could be better designed—in fact, it’s the bare minimum; a vegetable icon among some simple font—but these are baby steps Iloisa has taken to educate their farmers on branding and business. “Knowledge is very important. These farmers aren’t just farmers; they’re businessmen too, but they don’t know anything about business. That’s one way I can help them,” she says.
Helion Adamag and Ronnie Carlos are also among Session Groceries' partner farmers, growing strawberries and ginger respectively.
Each farmer partnered with Session Groceries is required to undergo a series of monthly seminars, where they’re taught the basics of running a business. They’re also taught other supplementary skills like how to manage finances, how to open a bank account, and how to do basic marketing. Iloisa even asked all her partner farmers to create their own business name and logo, which she plans to update on their mobile app soon.
“…what’s valuable for the nation in the long run is that we get to eat three times a day. And for that to happen, we need to take care of our farmers.” <callout-alt-author>Iloisa Romaraog<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
Iloisa may not be a farmer, but she certainly is an entrepreneur, and these skills are what she aims to convey to her partners. Using her background in technology and marketing, she intends to coach these farmers into becoming better businesspeople; ones who understand the golden rule of providing quality products to every customer. This explains why she’s particularly strict when it comes to screening each and every one of their products. If a batch fails the quality test, the farmer will have to replace it with a better one as soon as possible.
“Eventually, if the business grows, I want it to move beyond the idea of just ‘helping the farmers’,” she explains. “I see the farmers put a lot of effort into this, and in the future, we’d like to see people buy just because the product sells itself.”
Some farmers weren’t too keen on taking on the added responsibilities, believing it to be too much work, but those who stayed saw value in what Iloisa taught.
“Kailangan mo kasi i-value yung hirap mo, so [ang itinuturo ng Session Groceries sa amin ay] we have to invest wisely. Not to just work hard, but to work wisely,” says Helion Adamag, a strawberry farmer and Session Groceries partner. Ten years ago, Helion gave up his job as a loan officer in the city, and returned to farming to be with his family. In the past, he had trouble expanding his farm’s market; now, in less than a year since he’s been with Session Groceries, it looks like he’ll be their first millionaire farmer—at least, that’s what Iloisa hopes.
“If we could produce a millionaire farmer this year, that would make me very happy. That’s my ‘bait’ for the next generation to get into farming,” she says, smiling. “I always tell them that it’s not just our business, it’s everyone’s business. Session Groceries only consolidates, but the owners are really the farmers.”
In the Philippines, farming is a profession associated with poverty; since 2006, farmers and fishermen have been consistently tagged as two of the poorest sectors in the country. Compared to other ASEAN nations, the Philippines also ranks the lowest in terms of crop diversification, land productivity, and trade performance—a result of inadequate technology, low farm mechanization, and limited support for research and development. Until advancements in agricultural technology are achieved, the lives of many farmers will continue to hang in the balance, always uncertain of what the next harvest will bring.
With their situations so precarious, even the slightest change in the economy can cause a massive effect. Switching to high-tech agriculture and connecting farmers directly to consumers is needed, now more than ever.
“Naranasan ko na 100 kilos yung dala ko sa market, pero 20 kilos lang ang napresyuhan ng tama. Thirty kilos second-class price. Fifty kilos, reject.” <callout-alt-author>Romeo Gamutlong <callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
“As a private institution, I can only do what I can within my community. It doesn’t always have to be a one-time big-time solution, when we can do something about it, little by little,” Iloisa says. “I think it’s high time that the lives of these farmers change, and that they start to see themselves differently. One of the challenges our farmers are facing now include losing agricultural lands to buildings and subdivisions. [Through Session Groceries,] I want to show people that what’s valuable for the nation in the long run is that we get to eat three times a day. And for that to happen, we need to take care of our farmers.”
Food is one of the most basic needs of life, and to provide these to a nation of over 100 million people is no small feat. For Iloisa, the bigger dream is to one day achieve food sustainability in the Philippines through the help of our very own farmers. Where decades of unjust treatment have hardened their lives and folded their backs in shame, Session Groceries wants to empower farmers to always hold their heads up high.
“Empowerment is a big thing for me. To have a person believe in himself and in the work that he does, even if you spark in him just a little bit of hope.”