SULTAN KUDARAT, Maguindanao del Norte (MindaNews / 30 November) – The smell of authentic Bangsamoro appetizers and delicacies wafts in the air from the kitchen of the Udtog family in Purok Wardah, Barangay Katuli here.
Once or twice a week, about a dozen wives or relatives of mujahideens (freedom fighters) belonging to the former rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) keep their hands busy in a crowded neighborhood to keep alive their traditional food – and earn from it.
Yantakoz, the family-owned, women-led business has been producing heritage food since 2013, thanks to the initiative of husband-and-wife Hasmawi and Baiali Udtog.
Yantakoz may sound Japanese but it is actually a play on the Maguindanaon expression “Tayan Ko,” meaning “my love,” which the couple uses as an endearment for each other.
Like most start-ups, the business experienced birthing pains and, at one point, the prospect of failure loomed on the horizon, Baiali recalled.
“There came a point when we were almost broke because sales was not good. We were forced to sell our Multicab and sedan, and bought a motorcycle, to keep the venture afloat,” she said in Filipino.
The 41-year-old Baiali, a high school graduate, said they persevered because of their desire to promote and preserve the traditional food of the Bangsamoro people and to help their less fortunate relatives and neighbors bring food to the table and send their children to school.
After getting married, the couple’s first business venture in 2006 was a computer shop. They shifted to the production of Bangsamoro appetizers and delicacies in 2013, realizing their potentials and taking into account both their love for cooking.
Their journey in the production of Bangsamoro traditional food began when a Meranaw friend gave them sakurab, or native shallots, a vegetable similar to scallions, and gave it a twist by mixing it with palapa, a Maguindanaon dish.
“It’s a fusion of Meranaw and Maguindanaon cultural dishes. We love to innovate. Our palapa-sakurab product has become one of our best sellers,” said Baiali, who is co-managing the business.
Her husband and their delivery boy are the only males directly involved in the women-led and women-dominated enterprise.
From just 26 pieces of palapa-sakurab packed in 90 ml plastic bottles at the onset, their production slowly increased. Like any other business, there were slow days so they ventured into producing other traditional delicacies.
In 2019, they started consigning their products in the stalls selling Bangsamoro delicacies along the national highway in Barangay Makaguiling, Sultan Kudarat town.
At least 10 stalls have since been regularly supplied with Yantakoz appetizer and delicacies in Makaguiling. At one point, the enterprise supplied 27 outlets in Cotabato City and neighboring towns in Maguindanao, but this was disrupted by movement restrictions when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020.
From initially selling palapa, sakurab and palapa-sakurab mixture, they now produce baling (shrimp paste), kagikit a manok (shredded chicken), tinapayang luya (fermented ginger with mongo beans), tinapayan a udang (fermented shrimp) and tinapayan a aluwan (fermented mud fish)
The company is among the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that get assistance from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism (MTIT) of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) through training and product exposure in travel marts.
“I can feel that there is a Bangsamoro government that is helping the MSMEs,” Baiali said.
Yantakoz was granted a halal certificate by the Muslim Mindanao Halal Certification Board in November 2021 with the assistance from MTIT.
She said representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Agrarian Reform and the Ministry of Science and Technology have also reached out to Yantakoz for assistance the company could possibly get from these agencies.
Adequate government support
The BARMM was established in January 2019 with the ratification of Republic Act 11054 or the Organic Law for the BARMM.
The establishment of the Bangsamoro region was the major component of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), which the Philippine government and the MILF signed in 2014 after 17 years of peace negotiations, paving the way for the creation of the BARMM that upon its ratification, abolished the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
The CAB was signed under the administration of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III but its enabling law (RA 11054) and its ratification were done under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The BARMM comprises the provinces of Maguindanao (now divided into Maguindanao del Norte and Maguindanao del Sur), Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, the cities of Marawi, Lamitan and Cotabato and 63 villages from six towns in North Cotabato or what is referred to as the Special Geographic Area.
Baiali stressed that if MSMEs get adequate government support, such as easy access to financing, they can help reduce unemployment and further improve the peace and order situation in the region.
Surviving the pandemic
Baiali said the lockdowns at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 forced many local businesses to shut down but Yantakoz survived.
She said they targeted health workers and patients at the Cotabato Regional Medical Center and the Department of Health, their market for “pinagyaw a pastil,” rice with shredded chicken wrapped in banana leaves but with a twist: the pastil was further grilled over charcoal.
“The pandemic allowed us to innovate,” Baiali said.
The pinagyaw a pastil was a specialty of Baiali’s mother. It became such a big hit among health workers that Yantakoz sometimes produced 3,000 packs in a day.
Kanduli and the other celebrations observed by the Bangsamoro people in Maguindanao and Cotabato City have also been a source of income for Yantakoz, Baiali said.
From their earnings during the pandemic, the couple was able to acquire the property in Purok Wardah, Barangay Katuli that has since served as their production area. Just this month, the couple acquired a brand new bank-financed Mitsubishi Strada which they will use to distribute their products in nearby North Cotabato and other areas.
Although they still have their house in a subdivision in Cotabato City where they began their food business, the couple now stays more often in Barangay Katuli, an impoverished village populated by MILF members or supporters.
“Some widows of martyred mujahideens earn from our venture by peeling spices such as onions, ginger and garlic, among others,” Baiali said.
Baiali said they feel good knowing that in their “little way,” they are helping some poor families earn money for their basic needs.
“If people have a livelihood, most likely they will not do something against the law. If they are earning, they would prefer to become peace-loving people,” she said.
Baiali’s husband, Hasmawi, a son of a deceased MILF mujahideen, said it is their dream to provide more jobs to the people in the neighborhood, many of whom are also their relatives.
“Many villagers here don’t have a job. We’re looking to further grow our business so we can help more people earn income,” he said.
Aside from their workers, resellers also make profit from Yantakoz, as the enterprise sells to them at discounted prices.
“I never thought that our products would land abroad, such as in the Middle East and Europe, through our kababayans who bought to resell them to the Filipino community there,” Hasmawi said.
Yantakoz has yet to acquire a permit from the Foods and Drugs Administration to allow it to directly export its products to different markets abroad.
Jholens Hamsa, 25, a niece of Baiali, is thankful to Yantakoz for helping her achieve her dream of getting an education.
“Because of it I am now a graduating college student taking office administration,” said Hamsa, who does multiple roles such as cooking, marketing and delivery.
Hamsa is among the handful of relatives whom the couple has been able to support in getting through college through their business.
To sustain a business, Baiali advised women entrepreneurs like her to always strive for the better, and to never give up when the going gets tough. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)