Butuan City

Shift Supervisor, Nestle International, Jeddah, KSA, 1993-1995

Owner, Comet Caraga Industries, 1995 to present

The Inventive Entrepreneur

By J. Dela Torre

caneNo official vehicle was available so decided I shouldn’t let a minor inconvenience get in the way. I called my loyal “taxi” driver, Dodong Matula. Dodong hangs around Dotties Place Hotel to conduct guests around the city in his yellow tricycle, and this is where I found him—solicitous, smiling and always ready to engage in conversation. I had used him for a number of times the past two days, so I had become comfortable with his personalized “taxi” services.

He brought me to the bus terminal, and took the trouble of finding out what ride I should take. After having made sure that the minicab (a miniaturized version of a passenger van) he directed me to will drop me at Km 13, barangay Los Angeles, on the national highway to Surigao, I took the front seat, and settled down to wait for more passengers, as is the practice of jeepneys in rural Philippines, which don’t run on a timetable but go off as soon as there are enough passengers. I must’ve nodded off because when I woke up, the driver was already collecting the fare.

I got off at the corner of the highway and NIA Road at a little before 3 pm, the agreed time for the interview. Engr. Roderico Cane, my subject, said for me to walk along road for 200 meters, and as I was walking on the gravelly road along the concrete irrigation dike on my left, I asked directions from the people I met. “If you see the “Joy” factory, that’s it,” a sari-sari store vendor bellowed from behind his counter.

I walked further on, and then, I saw on my right a large rectangular building, and I noticed there was no smoking chimney, or a busy carpark, or a beehive of activity in an assembly line—telltale signs of a working industrial establishment.

I found Engineer Cane tinkering with his new invention (a rice-hull-powered stove which is supposed to save the user enormous money on fuel) with his workers at the workshop. Before we began the interview, he showed me his products: Joy Ketchup, Joy Soy Sauce, Joy Vinegar, etc. But the product, or rather, the raw material on which he has been spending a lot of his time on lately is lemon grass—and on display were all sorts of products derived from lemon grass: hydrosol which could be used as dipping sauce or flavoring agent, anti-mosquito and deodorant spray, juice, and lemon-grass extracts in capsule form.

I never knew lemon grass could be so useful. Up until now, I just knew lemon grass to be a flavoring ingredient for tinolang manok, or other soup or stew preparation, which not only tenderizes the meat but also gives it a unique, soothing and fragrant aroma.

It turned out lemon grass has essential oil which has all sorts of beneficial qualities as anti-depressant, anti-microbial, analgesic, antiseptic, fungicidal, astringent, bactericidal, etc. Very rarely do I have an “aha” moment, but this was one of those.

Lemon grass can be grown in any place in the country, and it is now being snapped up by buyers and entrepreneurs wishing to cash in on the potential bonanza of a wonder drug. Its essential oil is extracted simply by steaming, and doesn’t require complicated equipment and processes. The world leader apparently in lemon grass essential oil production is India.

Born in Butuan to a public school teacher and a housewife, Roderick was the eleventh in a large brood of 12. It was not easy growing up in a large family raised only on the modest salary of a public school teacher. Though the family owned a 3-hectare farm in Bayugan, Agusan del Sur, there was still not enough money to go around and to provide for all of the children’s education. As is the practice in the Philippines, the elder brothers and sisters had the first bat, and when already graduated and working, the younger siblings would then have their time to be educated. This time, things would be a bit easier because the elder siblings were now expected to help with the expenses. But sometimes, especially in the case of large families, one or two would have to stop going to school, as what happened in Roderico’s family. He remembers caring for the children of his sister, who supported him, while the household help took evening classes. In rural Philippines, it is common for the household help coming from poor families to forego with their salaries and opt to be “scholars” of the family they worked for. Many lives have been transformed in this way.

Roderico’s mom and sister wanted him to pursue an agriculture career, but their minds changed when the NCEE results came out. Roderico’s scores in mathematics were above the mean, and so he enrolled at then Urios College for the first two years and went to Cebu to pursue a degree in industrial engineering at the Cebu Institute of Technology, which degree in the late 70s was hot. Right after graduation, in 1983, it wasn’t easy finding a job, as companies were shutting down due to an economic downturn brought about by the political instability from the civil disobedience campaign launched by the political opposition. So, when an offer to work in a logging company as a scaler came, he grabbed it.

Not quite satisfied with what he earned, and at the advice of his mom, he enrolled again for a Mechanical Engineering course. He was keen to chalk up another engineering degree not only because his siblings promised to help out but it would take just another two and a half semesters to be qualified for a mechanical engineering degree. Having two engineering degrees was also a distinct advantage in looking for suitable jobs, he thought smartly.

He graduated two years after, and straightaway took the board examinations, but since things have not settled down as far as the bureaucracy was concerned, it was not certain when the board exam results would be released. National dailies had to be flown in by air to Butuan, and Roderico had to literally fight tooth and nail for a copy. On the day that the results were released, he wasn’t able to buy a newspaper. He learned he had passed the board exam days later.

Armed with two engineering degrees, he thought he was ready to compete in the labor market, but it was not to be. He sent away hundreds of resumes to prospective employers, until finally he landed a job with Universal Foods Corporation (UFC). The company was then building a new factory in Alabang, and preferred new graduates for its workforce. He started working for the company in 1986 and ended it in 1991 when an opportunity to work abroad offered itself.  This job as Shift Supervisor was with Nestle International in Jeddah, KSA.

In 1993, he flew to Jeddah, leaving behind a young wife and a two-month old baby.

“I really felt the difficulty of working away from family. Although the company I worked for in Saudi was good, and all our working terms and conditions were excellent, no amount of comfort or high salary could assuage the loneliness I felt for my family,” Roderico recalls.

He didn’t last long in his job, finishing only one two-year contract. Though there was an opportunity for a promotion which would’ve entitled him to family status, entitling his family to join him in Saudi Arabia, he chose not to renew his contract anymore. The principle he based his decision on was: the time he had lost working away from his family he will never get back, but the money he could earn abroad, he could very well earn in the Philippines.

Roderico offered to stay on until Ramadhan but his Pakistani manager didn’t see it his way. So, when the Pakistani went on holiday in Pakistan, Roderico took advantage of his absence to get the temporary Filipino department manager to sign off on his application for extension up to Ramadhan. He got his way and on February the following year at the start of Ramadhan, he returned home. He was actually offered to rejoin Nestlé in the Philippines, following what his former boss, Alfredo Ocampo, did when the latter decided his son’s education in the Philippines was more important than his career in Saudi. However, the prospect of going through the ordeal of a daily commute across Metro Manila, with its horrendous traffic jams from Balintawak where Roderico lived with his family, and Alabang, where his work would’ve been, daunted him. He declined the offer, and returned to Mindanao.

What to do in Mindanao? His work experience was all in food manufacturing. He went through a self-assessment: what was his strength and weaknesses? After the self-examination, he decided to venture into food manufacturing by founding the Joy company, manufacturing banana ketchup under the “Joy” brand.

He started his ketchup manufacturing business as a backyard operation, and after bagging a contract to supply the ketchup requirements of a chain of snack houses in Butuan, he decided to push on. He had an inventive creative bent, so he also began to invent and put together machines and equipment which made his manufacturing concern more efficient.

Being a start-up he was not too competitive against the big producers of ketchup. He realized that a huge part of the cost was packaging. He analyzed that the edge of the big companies were that the raw material was in powder form, not fresh, and they had economies of scale as far as the cost of packaging was concerned. He decided he couldn’t go cheap on raw materials because fresh bananas was what gave his product its unique taste. He could, however, reduce the cost of packaging by innovating and using cellophane plastic dispenser packaging. It was the era of repacking food items, such as vegetable oil, mayonnaise, soy sauce, etc., so he decided to follow the trend, and innovate. After several experiments, he got the right formulate right—his ketchup in cellophane plastic dispenser went for six months on the shelf without spoiling.

It was a brilliant decision, which took his market share to atmospheric heights. At one time, the Department of Trade and Industry conducted a survey of the banana ketchup market in CARAGA, and it was found out Roderico’s product had 40% of the market, with UFC playing second fiddle with 30%. He was so successful smaller companies began to copy his packaging formula. It wasn’t an instant success though. He had to introduce the idea of repacked ketchup to consumers. He offered free samples at the wet markets and went house to house. At the height of the popularity of his product, he had in his payroll 45 workers.

He decided to expand to the Visayas, which was a fateful decision. He figured that if his competitors who were mostly cooperatives in the banana plantations had the edge in terms of raw materials, if he expanded to the Visayas, he would have a competitive edge in terms of proximity to the market. Stretched to its productive capacity due to a bigger market, the frequency of his delivery to his clients in Agusan became once a month, from weekly. Then, starting 2008, the price of diesel went through the roof as a result of worldwide movements in the price of crude oil so it became cost-ineffective to transport his product to the Visayas. He was hit with a double hammer. He wanted to recapture the loyalty of his customers, but his market dominance in Agusan was whittled down by his small competitors and the big producers. His clients told him in his face: you have a superior product but what good is a superior product if it’s not available all the time on our shelves? That was a valuable lesson for him. Even if one had a superior and cheaper product, you had to make sure of supply because otherwise consumers would be forced to go for the competitors’ products. Availability was as important as quality.

At the present price of diesel, it’s still not cost-effective to transport his ketchup to the Visayas, so he’s decided to freeze his expansion plans to the Visayas.

In 2005, Congress passed a House Resolution encouraging the development of essential oils in the Philippines. The reaction of the relevant government agencies was quick. DOST gave away a distilling machinery to a farmers’ group in Cabadbaran, Agusan del Norte, while the Department of Trade and Industry did the same in Surigao del Norte. The agricultural sector was primed to explode with the new technology. The following year, everything fizzled out. Conflicting public statements came out of the concerned government agencies—one blamed the high cost of production, another pointed at cheaper synthetic essential oils from China.

Roderico’s involvement in lemon grass essential oil production came by chance. A farmer’s group in Cagayan de Oro who had gotten interested in lemon grass due to the government’s encouragement, wanted him to manufacture an evaporator or distilling machinery. When he had finished the job, he asked the group what they would do with the distillate or the hydrosol because the group was just keen about the essential oil. After distillation, the resulting products were the essential oil (2%) and the hydrosol (98%). The group replied they’ll just throw it away. Roderico had an epiphany: why not develop a product or products out of the more voluminous hydrosol?

That was the beginning of Roderico’s manufacturing business in lemon grass essential oil production.

Today, he believes it’s just a matter of time before lemon grass essential oil production becomes the new mantra in the agricultural sector. For his part, he has made arrangements with an investor for the capital inputs and for the promotion of the product in mass media, the investor having business interests in cable TV, radio and in private education. This investor’s interest was piqued when after opening a radio station in Toledo City, Cebu, he promoted the capsule on radio, and customers came in droves and he’s had to ship over by the boxes from Butuan to meet the demand.

He’s also eyeing the potential of lemon grass essential oil as a substance with therapeutic qualities. Testimonies of customers have drawn attention to the beneficial effects of either the capsules or the sauce. He has seen customers coming back for more, and have confirmed the extract’s medicinal qualities.

The growth of lemon grass essential oil production could’ve come earlier, if the issuance of his BFAD certification hadn’t been delayed. No amount of representation by the local government unit of Butuan, which had committed to persuade farmers to plant lemon grass, nor political pressure from the district’s congressman, could move the BFAD, whose head was even brought before Congress for its budget hearing. The director’s intransigence at the hearing was epic. Roderico even tried building a case for the Ombudsman on the theory that the delay in the issuance of the certification was criminally actionable.

Then, on July 22, 2013, President Aquino delivered his State of the Nation Address, and this gave Roderico an idea to again re-launch his assault against the bureaucratic process of the BFAD. He wrote to the President about his woes arising from the delayed BFAD certification, copy furnished 14 other national line agencies. Two weeks after, the DOH Secretary and DOH Regional Director responded, apologizing for the delay. And a few months thereafter, the BFAD finally issued the certification. 

Roderico also sees great potential for the promotion of the essential production process he has perfected among the ASEAN countries. He has learned, for example, that Malaysia also promoted the planting of lemon grass among its farmers, but that it has throttled back on its promotion after it learned that it was not producing enough essential oil using existing technology. Roderico, with a twinkle in his eye, disclosed that the key is in distillation. He has previously invented a pneumatic boiler, which was perfect for the distillation process. Whereas existing technology could extract essential oil from lemon grass in three days at the same rate that Roderico, using his pneumatic boiler, could extract in a few hours.

He demonstrated to the author how strong essential oil in its pure form. He poured a few drops on a piece of styropor and in just a few seconds, the oil has eaten through the plastic material. The extenders (VCO or olive oil) serves to counteract and moderate the essential oil’s corrosive qualities.

He suggests the following qualities of a successful entrepreneur:

  1. Don’t be afraid of untried technologies or new knowledge. It is only when risk is assumed when profit could be expected to be high.
  2. Adopt the Chinese mentality of saving and reinvesting profits, and discard our mentality of spending profits. This is another way of saying we ought to adopt the mentality of sacrificing present gratification for the sake of the future.
  3. As for OFWs, he had only one thing to say: You can never recover the time you have lost working away from your family, but you can always earn the same salary as you’ve earned abroad while working here with your family.

After I’ve expressed my gratitude for a learning experience interviewing him, I walked away, and glanced at his home. It wasn’t a particularly impressive one viewed from the outside. But I thought it was consistent with the modesty of a creative genius like Engineer Cane. Geniuses never flaunt their wealth because their wealth lies in their creative genius. It is the wealth and the generosity of a social entrepreneur. As proof of this, he has not even completed his application for a patent for his inventions, whether machine or process. It’s like he’s inviting other people out there to copy his inventions, hoping that by doing so, society will be benefited in general.