His cacao produces among the world’s best chocolates

Matt Lapid

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Meet Rob Crisostomo, who exports loads of Philippine cacao to Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest supplier of high quality chocolate

This is the first feature of my Manila Project. I embarked on the Manila Project as a personal endeavor to write about movers and shakers I’ve met in the Philippine start-up community throughout my journey as an aspiring entrepreneur.

Ironically, the interview took place in a homey restaurant in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental. Over lunch, I interviewed entrepreneur, Rob Crisostomo, after he asked me if I wanted to try some of his bacon burger. “Have some, pare (friend)!” he exclaimed.

Rob’s the type of guy who makes friends with everybody and is a genuine people-person. He jokes around about how he has earned the self-imposed title of the “People’s Friend” amongst the cacao farmers.

Passion for cacao

Just the day before I was with Rob on a visit to various farms in a barangay (district), about a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride from the city. During the trip, I witnessed Rob’s passion for what he does. On the back seat of a bumpy bus off-roading to remote villages in Negros, I would turn to my right and see Rob on his laptop going over spreadsheets. In between meals, he would excuse himself and take business calls. On our drive up the mountain, Rob’s eyes gleamed with excitement, as he was already envisioning the countless cacao trees that could thrive in this type of land.

CACAO BEANS. Rob Crisostomo at the Davao warehouse; production targets for the current harvest season are exceeded. All photos courtesy of Rob Crisostomo

As the founder of Seed Core Enterprises, Rob exports container loads of Philippine cacao to Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest supplier of high quality chocolate and cacao products. During our interview, I asked Rob how he got into the cacao industry and started to export to the world’s largest supplier of high quality chocolate.

He tells me that him and his wife, Bea, started religiously drinking tsokolate (Filipino hot chocolate) because there was a stall called Nana Meng’s that sold delicious tsokolate next to their store, Ritual. At the time, Rob and Bea were also working with coffee farmers in Maguindanao, Mindanao, and they sold the farmers’ coffee through a subscription service.

Eventually, people started approaching them about sourcing cacao. After traveling to various farming communities in the Philippines, they found a healthy and conducive environment to grow cacao in Davao. 

From the recommendation of a German chef, Rob heard about Barry Callebaut. Rob liked the idea of working with a company like Barry Callebaut, so he wrote to their headquarters in Switzerland. Some time passed, and the folks from Barry Callebaut corresponded with Rob, telling him that they spoke to his store manager at Ritual and expressed their interest in his cacao.  

In response, Rob – feeling a bit embarrassed that the team visited his store and he wasn’t there to properly welcome them – quickly booked a ticket to Malaysia to pay them a visit at one of their satellite offices.

The team at Barry Callebaut greeted Rob with open arms, but they shared their feelings of surprise and amusement at Rob’s daring behavior. Typically, when the company is interested in potential suppliers, they travel to see that person. It doesn’t usually happen the other way around. That’s when Rob realized that they never actually took a trip to his store.

Creating livelihood in the countryside 

It’s a moment that Rob attributes to his tendency of acting rashly in situations, which, he explains, is a gamble that usually works against him, but this risk gave him one of his biggest rewards. It didn’t only land Rob his biggest client, but also enabled him to learn from the industry giant.

Rob reminisces, “That small glitch was eventually the biggest opportunity that I was able to realize. Imagine…I was just an eager person who got lucky…was able to talk to the world’s largest chocolate manufacturer and learn from them.”

Because of his accidental audacity and knowledge of the Philippines as both producers and consumers of cacao, Rob successfully brought Barry Callebaut to the country.

Rob admits that it’s his competitive nature that keeps him going, but that he is also really passionate about nurturing the environment and working with farming communities.

The vision for his company, Seed Core, is to “guarantee the market first, so that when the project is ready to scale across the nation, and say someone wants to plant 10 million trees, that initiative will create livelihood for 10,000 farmers and potentially bring in P20 billion worth of economy to a community across the whole value chain.”

Rob further expounds and reveals a genuine understanding of his stakeholders and the problem he is trying to help solve.

He candidly shares, “The reason why we set that system up is because tree-planting activities are normally failed activities in the Philippines. They’re usually for photo-ops; nobody really takes care of the trees. By planting fruit trees or marketable fruit crops, people have a strong incentive to maintain their trees because they’ll earn from them within 3 to 5 years.”

DRYING BEANS. After drying, cacao beans are visually sorted to remove defective beans; a task mostly done by women at Casco Cacao buying station in Davao.

“Whereas if you’re planting very large trees, they’re like, ‘Shit I won’t be alive during that time…it takes 10-15 years…I’ll be dead.’ Considering that the average age of Filipino farmers is 56 or 57, the planting of new hardwood is unrealistic for them.”

From Rob’s honest insights, I observed that he sincerely likes what he does. While he’s working for a noble cause, Rob articulates in a matter-of-fact tone that does not seek glorification or affirmation. He just does stuff because he enjoys doing it and is confident about his vision. Individuals like Rob are constantly trying to take their innovations to the next level and reach more people in their work.

In line with SocialProject.PH, I asked Rob about what type of project he’d like to crowdfund. He told me that he’d ask his supporters to give money to fund the planting of their own cacao trees. In turn, they would get a chocolate bar in the mail, as an example of what a cacao tree could produce. This would be an initiative to link tree planting to single origin cacao bars.

An unpredictable future

When I asked about his motivations for a type of a project like this, Rob said, “It’s nice to get people involved and to give them an understanding of why you’re doing certain things. In regards to crowdfunding, it will be interesting to see how many individuals, not large-scale investors, would be interested in getting their feet wet in something long-term that also has an immediate and tangible incentive…it’d be interesting to see how many people would want to invest in the future.”

As my journey in Manila has taught me, the future is unpredictable. It takes a special type of person to trek along in the midst of uncertainty, but as Rob has exemplified the biggest risks can harvest the greatest rewards.

I suppose picking up and moving to the Philippines, in pursuit of change was a big risk on my part. Though the unwanted uncertainty definitely shaped me, it wasn’t deliberate. In contrast, my treading in the unknown is a result of my environment and experience in the Philippines. Taking risks and being aware of the costs calls for a much wiser owner. 

If the Philippines could teach a naive young person from the suburbs of LA this valuable lesson, I wondered what others could learn from life here. 

As a result, I asked Rob about his thoughts, as not only a Filipino entrepreneur who works on a global scale, but also an individual who chooses to take the road less traveled every day. 

Rob replied, “Resilience and keeping a good attitude…in spite of shit.

With the completion of the first feature of my Manila Project, I leave you with Rob’s bold and sharp insight. I challenge you to defy the odds and stay optimistic “in spite of shit.”

Let’s be sure to keep each other posted on our progress over a hot cup of rich tsokolate. – Rappler.com

This article is republished from SocialProject.PH, a crowdfounding project for social projects in the Philippines. Matt was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. Matt has previously worked with such organizations as Gawad Kalinga-Center for Social Innovation, Human Nature USA, and Ashoka Philippines.

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