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 to shop for groceries online.
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, devastating the entire Cordillera region. Iloisa and Cathy put Session Groceries on pause to volunteer; 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, Iloisa and Cathy eventually trained the group to make rags out of excess clothing, using Session Groceries as a platform to sell. Iloisa found herself enjoying the community work—a prelude to a calling very different from the one she had in mind.
“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 one of the more secluded farms of La Trinidad, Benguet, Romeo Gamutlong sits inside a small, makeshift kubo, packing what’s left of his fresh cucumbers into 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 twenty 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 would buy 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,” Mang Romeo says.
When the oversupply crisis hit Benguet farmers in January 2019, Mang Romeo was among those badly affected. Crops like romaine lettuce were reportedly being sold for as low as Php 10.00 to Php 20.00 per kilo, while potatoes and carrots were sold for Php 15.00 to Php 35.00. The crisis had been the result of several market factors, including a series of bad typhoons that ravaged the last quarter of 2018, delaying harvest. Unable to sell their products, farmers were seen dumping truckloads of excess vegetables 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 on social media,” 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 were only planning to deliver within Baguio and Benguet, until word got out as far as Metro Manila and other nearby cities.(Until then, Session Groceries had never made deliveries outside of Baguio.) Eventually, Iloisa and Cathy 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 Iloisa and Cathy 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. According to Iloisa, it had been 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 crisis died down in February, the duo decided to step back and evaluate their work. Overwhelmed by the experience and the public’s response, Iloisa and Cathy eventually 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 would support local farmers and advocates for fresh and locally grown food.
Today, Session Groceries has over 2,000 partner farmers spread across Benguet, Mindoro, Ilocos, Cavite, 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, Session Groceries is able to provide convenient and more affordable options for its consumers.
The best part? Farmers 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 softens to make him look younger.
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