Agriculture plays a vital role in the Philippines economy - almost 40% of Filipinos rely on farming as their main source of income. However, the average age of farmers is increasing - which represents a risk to food security, unless young people take action.
A passion called agriculture
After graduating high school, Jairus wasn’t sure what’s next for him. Instead of risking investing in a university course he wasn’t passionate about, he decided to take a year off to find his calling. While exploring different opportunities, he eventually enrolled in a four-month-long agricultural training programme in a rural area in the Philippines.
"That farm became my university. It was a true character-developing experience. I formed a strong sense of work ethic and an understanding of the industry. I ended up staying there for five years."
When the time came to leave the farm, Jairus moved to Manila to look for new opportunities. One day, he got a phone call from a friend who was looking to replace a model on a catwalk for an international brand. This event kick-started his two-year-long career in modelling. "It shaped me into who I am today. I learnt how to present myself well and how to talk and engage with people from different walks of life," he explained.
Despite his relative success in the fashion industry, agriculture has always been at the back of his mind. "There are so many amazing products in the Philippines - but people don't know how to market themselves and remove the production and logistical barriers. I wanted to help solve this problem," he said.
Umá, a breakthrough in digital agri-marketing
In 2015, Jairus founded iFarms Inc., a company that develops and integrates technology into agriculture activities. It simplifies the access of farmers to the market while respecting heritage practices. Technology and innovation represent an opportunity to address the issues of the agricultural industry in the Philippines - such as loss of interest in food production, growing urbanisation and shrinking farmlands.
"Our mission is to help farmers to activate their land's potential and to represent agriculture as a noble profession. We want to see young Filipinos choose farming as a way to prosperity," he said. "2015 to 2019 was all about research - we found out that one of the biggest challenges for farmers is to market their products effectively and on time," he explains. "Things move fast in big cities, and farmers often miss out on opportunities. Our answer to this was Umá."
Umá, iFarms' flagship product, is a mobile app that serves as an online agri-marketing tool for producers. With Umá, farmers get access to new market channels and can foresee the market demands, enabling them to coordinate their planting. Consumers can pre-order and pay for products directly via the Umá app. Farmers receive and process the order and send it to a designated Umá hub. From there, the order is picked up or delivered to the customer, following the highest food safety standards.
"Umá assists producers in selling products they haven't even harvested yet," Jairus added. "Traditionally, it takes around seven to eight stages to get the harvest from a farmer to the consumer. We have reduced it into four. It's a breakthrough in the agriculture supply chain in the East Asia region."
Addressing challenges during a global pandemic
"In January 2020, Umá was still in the initial launching phase. We had only a handful of buyers, but they were loyal. And steadily, people started to come to us. In the first few weeks of March, which was the start of the lockdown due to the pandemic, we immediately moved around eight tons of food using our system. And this grew week on week.” Jairus commented.
Following the restrictions of the global pandemic, many restaurants and businesses had to shut down, leaving people without jobs. Umá, operating mainly as a B2B service, opened up a spectrum of opportunities. "We realised that Umá was an alternative and timely solution to the challenges of the pandemic. We started providing produce to individual households and the growing home business market while simplifying the process for community resellers. For many who have lost their jobs, it’s a valuable extra source of income."
Jairus continues his efforts to promote agri-businesses as a sustainable and profitable opportunity for the Filipino population. "We've got a long way to go in our efforts to revolutionise agriculture in the Philippines - our company is still a startup," Jairus said. "At this moment, we need to strive to increase user-generated activities and on-board more industry practitioners from both producers and consumers. We want to make sure that our system generates revenue for everyone in the ecosystem and perhaps in time it will transform the industry for the better."