Developing a coffee break for the Philippines

by Louise George Kittaka

Contributing Writer

Katsuhisa Ota is based in Mindanao, in the south of the Philippines, and is passionate about helping people. Though Mindanao is the agricultural center of the country, it has been the scene of religious conflicts over the past several decades that have set back its development.

Drawing on years of experience working for nongovernmental organizations and developmental assistance agencies, Ota has recently branched out into social entrepreneurship with his firm, Pistacia Mindanao Coffee Export, Inc. PMCEI specializes in high-quality coffee and cacao beans produced by small local farms, with everything exported to Japan. Ota and his firm work to support smallholder farmers with access to technology and a ready market for their produce.

“We weren’t a farming family but we had a small allotment and I helped out as a matter of course,” says Ota, reminiscing about how from an early age he experienced the hard work and satisfaction that goes into growing food. “I’ve been interested in helping developing countries since I was in fifth or sixth grade. I thought it was sad that some people didn’t have enough food.”

He went on to major in agriculture at Nagoya University, where he engaged in research on crop science. It was during this period that he first went to Mindanao as part of a study tour, which included visiting a banana plantation and talking to the local people about their lifestyles and the issues they faced.

“I realized that just producing food would not solve food issues in developing countries and that community is the key,” he says. “I knew that Japan had been helping with building infrastructure in the Philippines, but I wanted to do something about social development at a grassroots level. I then applied for a masters course at the University of the Philippines Los Banos in Laguna, which is advanced in agricultural studies.”

It was an extremely busy time for Ota, who combined his graduate studies in Laguna with working for a Japanese company in Manila. “I was commuting back and forth between two locations, travelling 70 kilometers one way in a slow bus on roads that weren’t so good,” he recalls with a grin.

Although life was hectic, he was learning a lot that would help pave the way for his future business and social development activities.

“I studied the relationship between entities who give the money, like JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) and the World Bank, and the consulting companies who work out how to use it. Then construction companies come in to build the infrastructure,” he explains. “I was writing proposals and planning projects, including ones that took into account social aspects for the first time.”

Ota eventually went on to earn a Ph.D. in Community Development, but found himself pondering his future when he graduated in 2007. A professor at the university asked him to consider staying for an academic position, but Ota could see that path would be difficult for a foreign national in the Philippines. Instead, he went to work as a consultant for an NGO with a model farm in Mindanao, but differences of opinion over financing led to him quitting.

For the next few years, he broadened his knowledge and skills, working around the world as a consultant for JICA, including stints in South Sudan, Laos, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. “I was involved in social development in Afghanistan and I was really into it, but as the political situation became more unstable, I had to leave,” he says, still with a touch of regret.

At a career crossroads yet again, Ota found his thoughts naturally turning back to the Philippines. “Afghanistan and Africa were very interesting places but so far away. In my heart, I realized I wanted to return to the Philippines, and Mindanao in particular,” he says.

Ota decided to set up a coffee exporting business in Mindanao in partnership with another Japanese there. “We had been friends back from my NGO days and it was a good time for this kind of enterprise. I’d been wanting to do something different — something that would help the environment and promote fair trade,” he says. “There were few competitors importing to Japan from the Mindanao area, and the specialty coffee market and interest in fair trade is growing. On top of that, developments in information technology and social networking now make it much easier to run this kind of business.”

In the process of setting up the business, Ota says he has been able to return to his roots and his passion for promoting social development. “Producing and importing coffee makes sense for the Mindanao region,” he explains. “It rains a lot, and so the area isn’t well-suited to crop growing, as this involves digging up the soil and increasing the risks of erosion. Banana farming is the exception, as the trees stay in the same place and actually help the environment.”

The coffee beans, which Ota says can stay fresh up to one year, are grown on small farms and brought to the company within two weeks of harvest for packaging and exporting.

“Our customers are specialty coffee shops — we sell directly to small and mid-sized companies who support and understand our business principles,” he says. “I would be very happy to sell to bigger companies if they would buy our beans, but it is hard, as the Philippines is not known for its coffee in Japan.”

As with any new business, it has been a learning curve for Ota and his colleagues at PMCEI, but things are moving along. They recently entered a nationwide contest for coffee producers in the Philippines — the 3rd Philippine Coffee Conference — and came second. Ota also makes frequent trips back to Japan and has started attending festivals and food events there to promote the business.

His days are long and communication with local workers is not always easy, conducted in a mixture of English, Tagalog and Bisaya, a local language. However, Ota is thrilled to be doing something he believes in.

“Social development provides people with skills, employment and income, and also respects the environment,” he says with firm enthusiasm. “It’s good for everyone.”

Profile

Name: Katsuhisa Ota

Profession: Community development; coffee exporter

Birthplace: Aichi Prefecture

Age: 47

Key moments in career:

1992 — Visited the Philippines for the first time

2007 — Graduated from the University of the Philippines with a Ph.D. in community development

2017 — Started Pistacia Mindanao Coffee Export, Inc.

Things I miss about Japan: “It’s hard to get a cellphone signal and the internet in the mountain regions where we produce.”

Favorite way to drink coffee: “Hot and black, no sugar, paper drip.”

Words to live by: “‘Stand and fight,’ as quoted by Eddie Townsend, an American boxer and coach who was well-known in Japan for having trained several world champions.”