Unilever PHL fully sources cucumber locally, sees crop’s export potential

RIZAL, Nueva Ecija—Unilever Philippines is poised to become fully self-sufficient when it comes to its cucumber needs as it begins the local sourcing of this crop here and in the town of Bongabon to be used for all Lady’s Choice products domestically this year and eventually, abroad in the near future.

The multinational is expecting to meet the 1,200 metric tons of this widely cultivated plant belonging to the gourd family given its ongoing first large-scale harvest set from April to May 2018.

This, in turn, will enable the company to attain 100-percent local plantation and production of sweetened relish as part of the production requirements of the popular spreads brand.

“Sustainability is at the heart of Unilever Philippines business,” Unilever marketing director for foods Kristine Go said.

“Sustainable sourcing with local farmers ensures a supply of only quality ingredients for Lady’s Choice. This creates only the best and most delicious products possible from Lady’s Choice, while creating sustainable growth for the community and farming industry,” she added.

By 2050 the world’s population is projected to reach over 9 billion. Given this, production of food must double or grow by 50 percent in 2030.

Unsustainable farming practices, water scarcity and climate change have serious impacts on food security, the environment and farming communities.

Because of this, there is an increasing pressure for greater transparency on where food comes from and how it is grown.

As a transnational consumer goods firm, Unilever works closely with its supply-chain network, including farmers and plantation owners, as well as processors, refiners, and traders of raw materials, to transform farming practices and encourage a wider move toward sustainable sourcing.

For a stable and sufficient supply of agricultural raw materials like cucumber, it has a tie-up with Suncrich Farms—home of the world-class plant and curing facility for gherkin production—to tap local contract growers.

Initially, around 80 farmers in Bongabon and Rizal towns were enlisted during the initiative’s trial last year, Sunrich Manufacturing Corp. head of sales May Samia said.

For the full implementation of this project this year, she said more than 300 smallholder farmers, who currently work in 80 hectares of land scattered in both areas, are given additional livelihood with their inclusion in the Unilever supply chain.

During the recent media tour they hosted in a partner-farm located at Sitio Kumana, Barangay Macapsing in Rizal, Nueva Ecija, the executive said they chose these two towns because the farmers are hardworking and adept in planting cucumbers.

“We added more curing tanks so we can plant more,” Samia said of the expansion in their Tarlac curing facility to accommodate the expected  volume of cucumbers to be harvested this year. “For now, we are geared for 1,200 metric tons for pickling for 90 days. And then, as per requirement of Unilever, we process them [as gherkins].”

Since cucumber is a seasonal crop, farmers are able to have a stable flow of income by utilizing the land for intercropping harvesting rice, onion and garlic during peak season and cucumbers when land is idle. Planting and harvesting the latter is short around one month or a little over a month during summer (from April to May).

In fact, technician farmer-leader Ramon Palomo said the profits earned by contract farmers in his 3-hectare farm in Bongabon—one of the Unilever Sustainable Agricultural Code (Usac)-certified partners for the project—are just enough to cover the school expenses of their children and they can save their earnings from other crops like palay and onion.

“Hopefully, Sunrich will add more growers here for us to live more comfortably. This is not to become rich, but to have a continuous livelihood],” he said.

At present, cucumber is the 11th crop Unilever has fully sourced locally. Among the other sustainably and locally sourced agricultural raw products by the multinational are mango, strawberry, pineapple and jackfruit for its ice-cream category; and tamarind, turmeric, taro, pepper, onions and tomato for its food business.

To date, the company has engaged over 1,700 smallholder farmers in its value chain and is looking forward to reaching more lives through its sustainable agriculture agenda.

“As a company that caters to consumer needs, it is within our capacity to make our supply chain more inclusive to our local farmers, helping our business grow while improving their way of life,” said Ed Sunico, vice president for sustainable business and communications of Unilever Philippines. “As part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, we are working hard to be able to utilize local sources as part of our commitment towards a sustainable way of doing business, ultimately contributing to more meaningful growth for more Filipinos.”

With the cucumber yield expected to double in the coming  years—thanks to its variety called Puccini that produces a seedless and meaty crop—the firm is bullish on its potential for export to its counterparts in Europe, particularly in France and the Netherlands.

In preparation for this, Unilever Philippines head of procurement for food ingredients Mervin C. Yapan said they are currently on the stage of specification, alignment and identification of the right variety and size for the European market.

“Currently, we have a shortage globally. So what we have to do is to localize and look at the Philippines as a central hub for Philippine sourcing,” he said. “Then we have to really expand [this to other markets abroad]. This is in line with the future directions of Unilever. One is to have it sustainably sourced. Second is [achieve] the right variety, the right location of agricultural crops so at least in the future we can increase year-on-year in terms of volume.”

Unilever is engaged in technical farming Usac certification, which adheres to sustainable agriculture principles, such as producing crops with high yield and nutritional quality, minimizing environmental impact, using renewable resources when possible and enabling communities to protect and improve their well-being and environment.

“So we’re going into a technical agri-farming technology. Our expert is here to understand the yield, to understand what’s the next cropping month so, when it happens, it has to be sustainable to augment the increase of additional production.”

Unilever now sources more than 80 percent of its agricultural raw materials locally and sustainably, having made significant progress toward its ambition of 100 percent by 2020.

Turning Points 2018
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