Want peace? Drink coffee

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 4 October) – Fostering a culture of peace through coffee.

Joji Pantoja shows off one of the many awards Coffee for Peace has bagged over the years. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

This is what Felicitas Pantoja has been doing since returning with her husband, Luis Daniel Pantoja, from 20 years of staying in Canada, where she worked in the investment and financial industry.

In 2006, Pantoja, fondly called Joji, and her husband, who are both members of the Peace Mennonite Church, were sent back by their congregation as peacebuilding missionaries to Mindanao, which was then suffering from the conflict between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Later that year, the couple formed the Peacebuilders Community, Inc. and registered it with the Securities and Exchange Commission as a non-profit organization based in Davao City.

Peacebuilders Community engaged with the Bangsamoro and migrant communities in Maguindanao, a bailiwick of the MILF, which eventually forged a peace deal with the Philippine government in 2014 after 17 years of on and off negotiations.

During their early phase, Peacebuilders Community engaged with peace mediation and building, especially among feuding families or what is commonly known as “rido.”

It was during these initial engagements that Pantoja, who serves as operations manager of the non-profit, realized that coffee can be an instrument for peace in Mindanao, an island she was not familiar with then. She was born and grew up in Luzon, and had no relatives in Mindanao when they came in.

“Upon serving coffee to the conflicting parties, I noticed something wonderful happening. They would talk to each other and try to settle amicably. Walang putukan sa pagitan nila pag may kape (Their guns were silent when they drank coffee),” she said.

In a small corner of the Peacebuilder Community’s office, Pantoja established a peace café in 2007, which laid the foundation for the setting up in 2008 of the Coffee for Peace, Inc., the company which operates Coffee for Peace Café at One Oasis here. She acts as the chief executive officer of the firm.

Joji Pantoja explains how Coffee for Peace produces and markets its coffee products and the venture’s impact to various communities in Mindanao. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

The café serves and sells specialty and premium coffee bean varieties produced by farmers in parts of Mindanao where Peacebuilders Community operates. The company manages its own coffee roasting facility in this city.

“Peacebuilders Community and Coffee for Peace are part of the same coin. We can’t detach one from the other because doing so will crumble the foundation both entities have been working on,” Pantoja, a hotel and restaurant graduate from the University of Sto. Tomas in Manila, told MindaNews during a sitdown interview at the Peace Café.

What she has been doing is social enterprise, through the promotion of culture of peace, environment advocacy and providing fair and equal opportunity for coffee farmers in conflict-affected areas not just in Mindanao but also in Northern Luzon.

Peacebuilders Community trains peace and reconciliation (PAR) leaders and communities, with Coffee for Peace equipping them with the best coffee farming production practices to empower them economically as well, said Pantoja, also the president of the Davao Region Coffee Council.

Coffee for Peace allocates 25 percent of its annual net profit for Peacebuilders Community to help sustain the latter’s peace building initiatives in Mindanao, she revealed.

So far, Coffee for Peace has trained 880 coffee farmers, many concentrated in communities affected by the communist insurgency in Bukidnon and the Davao provinces, including tribal communities surrounding Mt. Apo, the country’s tallest peak.

“We trained them not only with coffee farming but how to become coffee bean processors. We are looking to make them not just productive coffee farmers but also to turn them into entrepreneurs,” said the 62-year-old entrepreneur and mother of three, all of whom have already graduated from college.

At least 10 coffee producers in the Davao region have become processors themselves, their products being sold at the Coffee for Peace Kiosk + Co-Lab Brew Bar at Abreeza Mall since 2021 through the Alagang Ayala Land, a program of the Filipino conglomerate to help boost social enterprises across the country.

The Coffee for Peace café is located at the ground floor of One Oasis in Davao City. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

“A social enterprise does social work, such as peacebuilding and environment advocacy in our case, and at the same time makes profit,” she explained.

For being a changemaker, Pantoja, who also goes by her Filipina name Lakambini Mapayapa, was chosen for the pioneering cohort in 2020 of the Deepening Impact of Women Activators or DIWA, a program of non-profit Ashoka, a network of leading social innovators in the world, in collaboration with S&P Global Foundation and Deutsche Bank.

DIWA is a three-month online capacity-building program that takes Women Social Entrepreneurs (WSEs) on a learning journey that empowers them to create a stronger impact, all the while establishing a community of determined WSEs in ASEAN, according to a project briefer.

In several ASEAN languages, DIWA has a powerful meaning. In Filipino, diwa stands for spirit, consciousness and will. In Thai, diwa/tiwa means daylight. In Bahasa Indonesia, dewi/dewa is the term for spirit, consciousness and will.

“The DIWA program (seeks) to gather women social entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia to strengthen their leadership and capacity, enabling them to scale their social and economic impact deeply and widely,” said Nani Zulminarni, Ashoka Southeast Asia chief.

Cheryl Chen, S&P Global Foundation director of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability for Asia Pacific, noted that women social entrepreneurs “create immense social and economic value with their enterprises and initiatives.”

“These women generally demonstrate a more people-centered and inclusive leadership style, with the gumption and ingenuity to bring diverse stakeholders together to meet the complex challenges of our times,” Chen said.

“Together with Ashoka’s extensive expertise and experience, we believe that unlocking the potential of these entrepreneurs and changemakers and building their capacity with the DIWA program will also unlock social and economic value for their communities, helping to scale solutions that are systemic and sustainable,” she said.

Pantoja stressed the DIWA program allowed her to further finetune Coffee for Peace’s business model, especially that she’s basically wearing two hats – as the CEO of Coffee for Peace and as the operations manager of Peacebuilders Community.

The fellowship allowed her to clearly delineate her functions and carry them out altogether, with each compensating the other, she said.

“You have to give justice to your farmers, you have to give justice to your workers and you have to give justice to your buyers, and at the same time make profit,” Pantoja emphasized.

From four staff when it started in 2008, Coffee for Peace now has 14 personnel while Peacebuilder Community has trained 16 communities in peace and reconciliation strategies across the island.

“Coffee for Peace as a business ceases to be without the communities we are journeying with,” she said in her valedictory address in October 2020.

Some of the trophies awarded to Coffee for Peace sit next to coffee beans at the Peace Café located at the ground floor of One Oasis in Davao City. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

One of the tribal communities, the Bagobo Tagabawa tribe living in Mt. Apo, conferred the honorary title Bai Kasunayan to Pantoja for helping empower their lives.

Coffee for Peace sources its coffee supply from these communities, which is sold at the Peace Café as beans or drinks. Its best-selling flavored coffee drinks include the Mindanao mint mocha and Cifra ala mode latte.

Its motto: “We serve just coffee in every cup.”

The Peace Café also serves non-coffee drinks, breads and pastas to clients who are welcome to come from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., except on Sundays.

According to its website, Coffee for Peace is a community of peace builders, business owners and farmers who are practicing and advocating inclusive development principles in the coffee industry.

Pantoja noted that Coffee for Peace has been working to increase the production and quality of coffee in the country, at the same time improving the lives of the local people involved in the cultivation of the crop.

She said local farmers produce only 25 percent of the country’s coffee supply, with the other 75 percent sourced abroad.

There is actually a big market for coffee in the country that local farmers can supply – if only more of them grow the crop and fellow Filipinos patronize their produce over the imported ones, Pantoja said.

“Buy local,” she urged Filipino coffee drinkers.

Coffee for Peace sells its coffee beans from P1,000 to 1,400 per kilo, depending on the quality.

Coffee can be harvested three years after planting, and can be productive for 20 to 30 years.

In Mindanao, Pantoja said the most common varieties grown are arabica and robusta. Arabica coffee is known to thrive in the highlands, and robusta in the lowlands.

For her work, Pantoja received numerous awards, including the Women Entrepreneur Winner of CitiBank-Business in Development Network Philippines in 2010, the N-Peace Award from the United Nations Development Program – Impact Investment Exchange Asia (UNDP-IIXAsia) in 2015 and the UN Women Empowerment Principles Award in 2021.

In 2017, Pantoja completed her Master of Entrepreneurship in Social Enterprise Development from the Ateneo Graduate School for Business.

She was also one of the three winners of the 2020 Oslo Business for Peace Award, who were selected by an independent committee of Nobel Prize Laureates in Peace and Economics.

Pantoja, a dual Filipino-Canadian citizen, could have stayed and enjoyed her life in Canada in comfort – managing other people’s wealth – but she chose to live in Mindanao and walk in its fringes.

“I have a calling – my purpose in life is not just to live for myself but to be of service to the community,” she said. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)