When an NGO books my travel they do not always find a direct route to the assignment site. In this instance, to reach Manila I was sent Boston – Atlanta – Seoul – Manila. Sort of zig zagging across North America and Asia to reach Manila so that I could perform volunteer work. Such routing is seldom fast and efficient. But my connection through Seoul, Korea (Incheon Airport) was incredibly efficient. I passed through security points via facial recognition and paused in front of a no-touch, body temperature reader (anti-Covid measure.) All fast and efficient.
The concourse had all the high-end brands one finds in modern airports throughout the world, but it had something I had never seen before in an airport: robots roving the concourse. Travelers can use a touch screen to query a robot about flights, shops, restaurants, January 6 hearings, and all sort of other items. I’m not actually certain of the January 6 information. I made that up.
I spent 18 days working in Manila with the Federation of Peoples’ Sustainable Development Cooperative (FPSDC.) Even the acronym is long, but the co-op’s work is admirable. They assist over 4,000 poor farmers (mostly coconut growers) by providing microloans and housing to families who lose their homes to the frequent typhoons in the Philippines. FPSDC also works to improve the farmers’ yields and process their coconuts into value-added products like desiccated coconut, coconut oil, and coconut sugar.
Finding good market information about coconut sugar – – a task in this assignment – – was a challenge. This is a relatively new and narrow niche product without its own specific industry code. For example, the soft drink business has an industry code, 312111. Use that code to conduct your research into soda pop. But coconut sugar has no code, so information was hard to find. But the product does have a growing following of supermarkets, food processors, and beverage makers.
Give a farmer a coconut and he will eat for a day. Teach him to research coconut sugar and he will eat for a lifetime. So, not only did I conduct market research, I also mentored three members of my client team in how to conduct market research. Ideally, they will continue to learn of market opportunities well after the end of my assignment.
Generally, I am not a strong proponent of sugar. In fact, I sometimes say that sugar is the devil. But, I have a decidedly different view of coconut sugar. It is natural, organic, unrefined, provides phyto-chemicals not offered by refined white sugar, and importantly, it has a low glycemic index. This is a boon for those who want to avoid a spike in their blood sugar level.
My assignment was spent working with a small team from the client organization. We conducted internet research into the demand for this natural sweetener, visited supermarkets to view shelf displays of coconut sugar, conducted Zoom call interviews with industry players, and analyzed internal company data. All in all, we concluded that growing global demand for this healthy (healthier?) sweetener would be a boon for my client. We also concluded that significant opportunity for expansion exists in their home market with food processors, bakers, and chocolate makers. Consequently, FPSDC will focus their efforts for now in the Philippines. But meanwhile, I urge my dear readers to check out your local Whole Foods for evidence of coconut sugar on the shelves. If there, stock up. Do yourself a health favor and do the poor coconut farmers a favor as well.
The Filipinos have a charming way of making a visitor feel important. I am always addressed as “sir.” Often the sir is spoken before my name, frequently before my formal name. Hence, when I walk through the hotel lobby, the staff will address me as Sir William. Not quite the princely respect I think I deserve, but respect all the same.
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The small island of Siquijor (See-key-hor) lies between two larger islands, Negros and Bohol. Despite its diminutive size it has an outsized grip on the imagination of some Filipinos. In the interior hills are healers who concoct traditional ointments for modern ailments. Some believe these healers to be shaman or even witches. Their brews are a form of witchcraft that should be avoided. Over lunch in my client’s office in downtown Manila, I told my work colleagues that I planned to visit Siquijor Island upon completion of my assignment.
One of the women at lunch advised me to avoid eye contact with people on that island because they might be witches. “Some of the witches can change from man into woman and even something with fangs or into a cat or dog or another animal.” “If someone taps you on the shoulder, they might be transmitting a bad spell. You should immediately tap them back to reverse the spell.” I was warned that I might see strange things on Siquijor. If so, “You must quickly say ‘tabi tabi po’.” It was explained that this means excuse me to the spirits who are causing the strange occurrence. Tabi tabi po is to be used only for spirits, not to be said to people. Another colleague at lunch said that she had heard of these beliefs but didn’t have any proof of the witches. But then again, she didn’t fully refute them.
Once we reached the island of Siquijor, I decided to visit a shaman to have my creaky right knee treated. In the small village of San Antonio I spotted a roadside sign: Annie Ponce, Faith Healer. In Annie’s living room I was seated in a straight-backed chair and wrapped in a sheet. Annie placed a bowl of burning charcoal beneath my chair and poured some mysterious liquid over the coals. Smoke enveloped my body. The faith healer (shaman) blew on my neck and then on my affected knee. She massaged another mystery liquid into my knee. This was followed by her placing a warm poultice of green leaves on the joint. The leaves looked a bit like spinach. During the thirty minute procedure, ten children, grandchildren, and relatives milled about the living room observing the process and the foreigner in their midst.
Before sending me on my way she admonished me to avoid peanuts so that her treatment would benefit my knee. Sadly, two weeks later it is still creaky. (I just couldn’t stay away from the peanuts.) But my cross-cultural experience is much stronger.
To wrap up, I have concluded there are no witches on Siquijor and there is no devil in coconut sugar.