Sunday, August 25, 2019

Finding potential in seaweed

RISING TO THE CHALLENGE. Maximo Ricohermoso already had a thriving career but chose to make it on his own by processing seaweed for foreign companies. (Contributed Photo)

LONG before seaweed processing became a big industry in Cebu, farmers used to sell raw seaweed to multi-national companies in the US. After that, the processed seaweed got sold at a hefty price tag.

It took visionaries like Maximo Ricohermoso, president of MCPI Corp., to change the way Cebu played in the seaweed ballgame.

Seeing the potential for employment and revenue, especially in the countryside, Ricohermoso pioneered the production of seaweed cultivation in the country and transformed it into high-value product—carrageenan.

Carrageenan is a gelatinous substance used in food, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals that is derived from seaweed.

It is commonly used as a thickener and stabilizer in infant formula, dairy products, non-dairy “milk” analogs, meats and drink mixes.

Ricohermoso, who now sits as the chairman of the Seaweed Industry Association of the Philippines (Siap), said working in this industry isn’t new to him.

Born in Marinduque, Ricohermoso is a child of a farmer and trader, Daniel and Januaria. Growing up, the seasoned agri-entrepreneur saw how farming could change millions of lives if investments were directed to this industry.

This was his motivation when he entered college in Feati University in Manila, where he took up business administration.

“It was in college where I grew to love fresh seaweed salad or gusô ,” he recalled.

Ricohermoso finished college as a working student, helping out in the student registrar’s office.

“At a young age, I already had a glimpse of how difficult life was if you didn’t do something about it. You need to work hard if you want to achieve something,” he said.

Working at the university’s student registrar allowed Ricohermoso to experience what it was like working for someone. Although it meant sacrificing his studying hours, his life as a working student exposed him to different types of people and allowed him to create a network which he could tap later on.

After college, Ricohermoso joined several companies before joining the seaweed industry. It was the latter job though where he spent most of his employment years. It also made him one of the prime movers of the country’s seaweed industry.

He is passionate about helping seaweed farmers augment their income and uplift their standard of living by inventing new ways of seaweed applications and finding new markets.

The Philippines is part of the Coral Triangle, an area that has vast potential and is conducive for seaweed farming. The farmers here are capable of extracting carrageenan and tailor it to a specific application.

Unfortunately, achieving sustainable seaweed production is posing a threat to the growth of the industry. The Philippines, which used to be a leader in seaweed production, now imports yields from Indonesia to meet the demand.

With the vast new applications of seaweed, Ricohermoso said there is one area where Cebu could become a market leader.

He cited the huge potential of gusô as an alternative fresh vegetable salad to be served in low to high-end dining establishments.

“The opportunity is big. We just have to market this properly, and I’m sure it would be a big hit,” said Ricohermoso, drawing his confidence from the rising health conscious market globally.

What was your first job?

Prior to joining the seaweed industry, I joined big companies like Procter & Gamble (P&G) and McCann Erickson (now McCann), an American global advertising agency network. These two companies honed me to become the best entrepreneur and leader I could be.

I worked in P&G as an auditor. I got to travel around the country and I learned everything about a customer, from his needs and wants to the buying pattern.

McCann Erickson, on the other hand, taught me about market positioning. I worked at McCann Erickson as a comptroller, and it exposed me to all there is to learn about marketing. It taught me that for customers to patronize you and make you the top-of-mind, you have to have a good marketing strategy.

Because of the network I was able to create and nurture, plus my work background getting into my third company, it came a bit easy. I was told by my accountant friends that FMC Corp. was looking for comptroller and a business manager. This was the start of my immersion into the seaweed industry.

Who inspired you to get into business?

It was an opportunity that knocked on my door. The challenge to grow in my corporate career was there. The goal to become better from my last job was there. I wanted to compete with myself and see where else I could grow.

It was, however, along the way of attaining such goals that I saw the immense opportunity this industry could give to the thousands of farmers living in the coastal areas. I saw how this industry could boost our export revenue and how this could make our country popular in the global map.

When did you realize this was what you were meant to do?

Transforming seaweed into a high-value product—carrageenan—was something that could be done here. I realized that there was a big market potential for us as a country if we stopped selling raw materials to our buyers and instead converted them into high-value goods and sold them globally.

I decided to set up my own seaweed processing business to exclusively cater to the requirement of my former employer. Then eventually, we spread our wings and catered to other markets globally.

Seaweed farming is a profitable farming activity. We can cultivate it here. We have the capability to process it, and we have a good research and development to seek new applications for it. The Philippines has both the capacity and the talent.

About 60 percent of seaweed goes to food application. Others are into cosmetics, medical applications, among others.

Why did you pick this type of business or industry?

This was an opportunity I stumbled upon during that time, which showed me the potential. It was the right venture that time because there were only three companies, all foreign, that were engaged in this processing business, as most of the local companies in the Philippines were traders of raw materials.

Where did you get the training you needed to succeed?

My extensive background, both in P&G and McCann Erickson, were my business “weapons” to grow big in the seaweed business. Knowing the consumer appetite and the cost-effective way to market your products are important in gaining traction in the market.

How many times did you fail before you succeeded?

I did not suffer that much when I ventured into seaweed processing because during that time, there was an over production of seaweed, which brought price stability and steady market demand. It became cheaper, from $900 per ton and then stabilized to $300 per ton.

Now, the industry is facing climate change and causing a negative impact to the production. But the good thing is seaweed farmers have been creative in their own ways to cope with this challenge.

We now aim to maintain 90 to 100 metric tons of seaweed production this year, with maintained export demand from China, Europe and the United States.


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