Often dubbed as the “Tree of Hope”, pili has brought not just hope but also fortune to a family and their workers in Irosin, Sorsogon.

Myra Zandra Gestiada, a former overseas Filipino worker (OFW), now continues to run the legacy of her parents in selling pili nut products through Vicky’s Pili and Food Products.

Today, their business provides employment to local workers while promoting Sorsogon as one of the major producers of pili products.

It all started 38 years ago, when Myra’s mother, Victoria ‘Vicky’ Navarro, decided to sell pili nut candies using the pili nuts harvested from their farm. Myra’s father used to be a farmer and would plant and harvest a huge amount of pili nuts.

Pili is known to be grown extensively in Sorsogon province—not just in farms and plantations, but in backyards as well.

Myra Zandra Gestiada, owner of Vicky’s Pili and Food Products, leaning on a stall full of their bestsellers

Myra shared that her mom, who hailed from Zamboanga City, grew up with relatives who ran restaurants. This is where her mother learned to love cooking, including those that used pili nuts as main ingredient.

Decades after the business was established, Vicky’s Pili and Food Products continued to grow and became a household name in the Bicol area. It was at its peak when the business experienced some challenges that the entire Navarro family had to face.

Rising from challenges

In 2009, the family behind the successful business faced a major setback when Vicky was diagnosed with a serious illness.

Myra, who was working in Dubai then, decided to go home to the Philippines to take care of her mother who was diagnosed with amyitrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Myra also took over of the business since her mother became too weak to handle the business.

While the business was already established when Myra took over, there were some challenges that her family had to face.

“New products means you need additional capital to cover packaging and labels on top of the costs for the ingredients,” Myra recalled. It was hard at first but Myra, with support from her family, managed to scale up the business.

Myra shared that it was only in 2015 when she actively promoted their products since the top priority then was taking care of her mother.

Back then, the products of Vicky’s Pili and Food Products were buding de pili, giniling, preserva, pili nut conserva, and the all-time favorite honey crispy pili. When her family took over, they decided to add new products and product lines. These are the Vicky’s Pili Kernel Lines which contains six variants of pili such as the roasted pili nuts, honeyed crispy pili, pili nuts with Himalayan salt, sweet and spicy pili nuts, pili nuts with chili pepper, and the mazapan de pili.

Vicky’s Pili and Food Products employee picking out the pili nuts ready for processing

Myra recalled that some customers then were looking for non-pili products. It was then they introduced The Pulp, a spreadable paste used as a condiment. “We thought it would be a waste if we don’t create something out of it. Usually, it’s just the nut that is made into a candy,” Myra explained.

Recently, she established a new product line called Hin-ay Tradition which contains dried culinary herbs and spices, dried agar seaweed, powdered moringa, powdered teas, tablea de cacao, atchara, and coco sap vinegar.

Learning Never Stops

While Vicky’s Pili and Food Products already made a name in the market, Myra knew that there will always be competition. Hence, they also need to step up and innovate in order to stay afloat in the market.

Myra made sure to attend trainings and seminars to help her upscale and grow their family business. Some of the seminars and events she attended were organized by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which included Go Lokal! Buyers Day, Go Lokal! Encounter PAFT R&D Application Seminar Regarding Health and Functionality from fats and oils, Shared Service Facilities (SSF) Bicol Summit 2016, Greening Sorsogon MSMEs, and BOI Investment Roadshow: Industry Development for Inclusive Growth Industry Roadmaps, and AEC Gameplan Roadmap Localization for Competitiveness, among others.

Vicky’s Pili and Food Products was also part of several DTI-sponsored trade fairs including ProPak Asia, Sikat Pinoy National Food Fair, OKB Gayon Bikol Regional Trade & Travel Fair, International Food Exhibition, Orgullo Kan Bikol. All of these trade fairs were instrumental in increasing the sales of Vicky’s Pili and Food Products.

In 2017, the enterprise was awarded as DTI Go Lokal! Top Seller. Myra was also a nominee in Go Negosyo’s 2018 Filipina Entrepreneurship Summit.

Vicky’s Pili and Food Products employees readying the coating for the honeyed pili nuts

Myra recalled that the business was at its peak when her mother was the one running it. But they faced major challenges when her mother, Vicky, got sick. “Right now, we are still in the process of reviving it, but in a bigger scale. We introduced a lot of changes, such as the label of our products—but we are maintaining its quality,” she said.

“As much as possible, we try to establish a good relationship with all of our customers, even online. We don’t settle for less. We always attend the trainings provided by DTI and share it with our employees. As business owners, we should never get tired of learning and trying something new. We should always make time to learn,” Myra added.

Myra shared that they also decided to establish another business, which is mainly managed by her husband.

“We wanted to sustain everything so we created a new business managed by my husband, the Angkie Agri Enterprises which grows pili. Before, we get our supply from other pili farms. With us having our own plants, we hope that will help our business improve,” Myra said.

Some products of Vicky’s Pili and Food is sourced from other suppliers like the imported Himalayan salt and chili peppers from other entrepreneurs. Later on, Myra realized that the supplier is not consistent with their flavor, so she opted to just plant their own chili peppers.

Vicky’s Pili and Food Products' honeyed crispy pili in bottles of various sizes

Myra also shared that from every stage, sorting the products is very important in order to achieve the premium pili kernel.

“We are a vertically integrated company. Before the Ankie Agri-business, we buy the pili fruit and then we process them. So there’s not a lot of traders in between from the shell to the kernel. We own the whole value chain for the production of pili unlike others where they start the processing from the pili nuts … we start from the fruit,” said Myra.

“In our company, we have different processes from pulping, drying, cracking, peeling, and so on. That is actually to our advantage because we were able to create our new product The Pulp. If we started in between, we will not have the idea of creating another product from the by-product of pili,” she added.

Sowing the seeds of success

To give back to the community, Myra and her family donate pili seeds to other farmers that could help them in their livelihood. Myra shared that they have been doing this for the last three years. They have also been initiating tree planting activities in some towns of Sorsogon.

“We also supply other enterprises. There are many more coming but we don’t want to commit until we’re sure that we have enough raw materials,” Myra said.

Vicky’s Pili and Food Products' pili nuts with himalayan salt in bottles of various sizes

The enterprise has penetrated the market well and has reached stores in Metro Manila and some nearby cities as well as the provinces of Bulacan, Pampanga, Quezon, Ilocos Sur, and Laguna, among others.

“At present, my husband and I manage it so we are teaching our staff and encourage them to be part of the company’s shareholders. After that and when we develop our new brand and new products we can now go into franchising,” Myra mentioned.

Aling Vicky’s Pili and Food Products is officially registered as a single proprietorship, but Myra shared that they are thinking of turning the business into a corporation as part of their sustainability plans. It also means providing opportunities for others to be a part of their success.

Vicky’s Pili and Food Products' other bestsellers, including tablea balls, atchara, salabat, and sampaloc