People, Planet, and Profit: Wit Holganza’s Holistic Approach to Success in the Philippines’ Cacao Sector

A photo of Wit Holganza on her cacao farm in the Philippines.
Wit Holganza has introduced innovations into her cacao business in the Philippines to promote gender equality and environmental sustainability. Photo by Michelle Johnsen of Lancaster Photography Collective.

Wit Holganza describes herself as both a farmer and a food crafter. She is also the CEO of Lilamaya Inc., a small enterprise in the Philippines that grows cacao crops on a five-hectare plot of land and produces a range of products including cacao nibs, chocolate bars, and cacao granola.

Lilamaya was founded in 2016 and, through Holganza’s leadership, has become a key innovative player in the Philippines’ cacao sector on the island of Mindanao. The enterprise contributes to Mindanao’s impressive production of 40 percent of the country’s food supply, which includes cacao. However, droughts, erosion, pests, and disease are all becoming increasingly common climate hazards for farmers and small enterprises like Lilamaya. Heavy rains and humidity are increasingly impacting cacao production and Holganza has observed that the cacao pod borer – a major pest in production – attacks their cacao pods much faster during periods of heavy rainfall. Developing more sustainable practices is critical to address these growing impacts of climate change.

Innovations in the Philippines’ cacao sector

In response to this need, Lilamaya combines traditional farming practices with modern sustainability initiatives following the company motto, “for a better planet, better people, and better profit.” The enterprise develops products made from plants and trees native to the Philippines alongside its cacao-based products to increase sustainability and resilience. Broken or opened cacao pods are also upcycled by Lilamaya into new products.

This approach has helped to preserve the country’s rich natural heritage and to provide more decent work opportunities to indigenous peoples, youth, and people with disabilities. Ten full-time employees and five part-time employees are currently employed with decent work at Lilamaya – the majority of whom are women. Engaging youth in the Philippines’ cacao sector is also important for the future of agriculture, and over the past year, Lilamaya has increased the number of young people it employs from zero to 30 percent of its full-time staff. The enterprise also offers childcare in the workplace for staff who do not have options available to them at home.

Mainstreaming gender equality and sustainability

In early 2023, MEDA – through the Resilience and Inclusion through Investment for Sustainable Agrikultura (RIISA) project funded by Global Affairs Canada – supported Lilamaya to take its impact to the next level by assessing its business performance. The results from the assessment informed the development of an Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)-focused Action Plan to improve Lilamaya’s operations and increase its revenue. Through the plan, gender equality and sustainable farming practices have now been formally mainstreamed into the business. MEDA also awarded Lilamaya a CA$20,000 matching grant to improve its cacao productivity and introduce new products with the aim of increasing overall farm revenue.

“With the onset of engagement with MEDA and the RIISA project we have been more mindful about incorporating methods and processes. Our people have gone through training for gender sensitivity and making sure we are treating everyone fairly. We’ve also been so mindful about shifting our practices from using synthetic chemicals, we’ve been taking steps towards the practice of permaculture.”

– Wit Holganza, CEO of Lilamaya

Holganza recognizes the importance of investing in more sustainable, inclusive, and environmentally friendly ways of doing business to positively impact people, profit, and the planet. “We don’t have unlimited resources. We need to work with Mother Nature, and we need to make sure that we’re spreading the word to fellow farmers so that globally that impact becomes strong,” she says. “I hope that small farmers will rise to this challenge to make sure we are looking at biodiversity in ways that will ensure that the planet survives for the next generations.”

Lilamaya is one of three women-led businesses MEDA’s RIISA project has supported in its first cohort of small and medium-sized enterprises in the Davao region of the Philippines.

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  • MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates)

    MEDA is an international economic development organization that creates business solutions to poverty. We work in agri-food market systems, focusing primarily on women and youth in rural communities in the Global South. Our success is measured by income, improved processes, increased knowledge, and the creation of decent work.

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