Concocting the alternatives

“It is not about the capital. It’s about what your heart desires.”

This is what Ms. Lucrecia Magno Neri, or Luz as her friends call her, from Midsayap, North Cotabato keeps on saying as she recalls how her entrepreneurial journey began.

A former development worker in a non-government organization (NGO), Luz ventured into different businesses, like buy-and-sell, until she finally found and believed the enterprise that is really meant for her—alternative herbal products. This business became an avenue for her, not just to uplift family’s life, but also to help others live a healthy life and take care of the environment.

Luz, the owner of Manna’s Alternative Herbal Products, poses with two of her staff showcasing some of their products

An empty pocket and a heart full of love

After getting fully healed from cancer and seeing the power of alternative medicine, Luz could not help spending this second life God has granted her by sharing this blessing to others.

Equipped with the knowledge and skills on farming she gained from her parents, her mortar and pestle, and the plants in her backyard, Luz tried to make herbal powder for her family and friends. When she received good feedback and personally saw the efficacy of such products, she finally decided to turn it into a business.

That is when she started Manna’s Alternative Herbal Products, deriving the name from the Biblical manna, which God in the Old Testament provided to the Israelites as food while they were travelling in the wilderness towards Promised Land. She sees her products as the modern-day manna, God’s gift to people.

With only Php 105 as capital and a passion to help others, she initially began processing plants into herbal tonics in limited variants such as sambong and turmeric.

As people bought her products, she did not settle with what is at hand. She knew in her heart of a bigger calling, and thus engaged in continuously developing products.

Raw Turmeric Ginger to be processed into powder for herbal tonic

Passion to help others

Driven by passion to help others live a healthy life and fueled by creativity and wisdom God blessed her with, Luz set her heart in conducting research studies to further develop the products.

“I believe that God has blessed us with so much—with creativity, with wisdom. I see the use of every plant I encounter,” Luz said.

Her desire to come up with more alternative products resulted in additional variants of her herbal tonics which now include ginger (salabat), bignay, mangosteen, lagundi, guyabano, and eucalyptus, among others. She was also able to produce capsules from herbal plants such as serpentina, ashitaba, and moringa, which were proven to be helpful for people with diabetes, hypertension, and other lifestyle diseases.

At present, Manna’s products already include jams, preserves, and prunes from fruit trees like durian, mangosteen, bignay, and rambutan. They also produce herbal bath soaps made from tomato, milk and oat, chili, calamansi, and the same plants used in the tonics.

As Luz’s heart continue to burn with passion to promote healthy lifestyle through alternative food products to a wider audience, she decided to tap partners in the government such as the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Department of Agriculture (DA). These agencies helped her improve processes and promote products.

Manna’s Alternative Herbal Products’ Staff peeling turmeric ginger

Through DTI, she gained access to trainings and services on product development, which helped enhance her branding. The Department also assists in marketing her products through local and national trade fairs.

As Luz recalled, DTI had been with her even in the most challenging season of the entrepreneurial journey, which involved obtaining a license to operate from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“It was DTI that encouraged me to apply for a license. They told me that once I and my products are certified, it will boost the trust and confidence of my customers since it will give them the assurance that they are using safe and quality products,” Luz shared.

“We have been inspected for so many times.  We had to adjust to their requirements and be inspected again. We got disapproved for several times, but DTI was there to help us,” she added.

With the licensed obtained, Manna’s boosted its product image and sales. Its brand assured buyers of reliable and trustworthy products.

“DTI helped me succeed. They’re there every step of the way,” she shared.

This kind of assistance from her partners, as she said, is one of the reasons her passion to help others as well never runs out.

One staff in the process of herbal soap molding

Her cup runneth over

In just eight years in the industry, it is undeniable that Luz has already achieved the kind of enterprise she dreamed of—one that not only earns but also helps the community and the environment.

The return on investment for Luz is evident on how the enterprise had grown from a simple mortar-and-pestle mode of production to a large-scale operation. Her production facility is complete with drying, cooking, and packaging equipment.

She also has a shop for her products, as well as the products of other micro entrepreneurs from Midsayap, are being displayed and sold.

Recently, Manna’s established its own organic hub, serving organically produced food like their vegetable burger.

The reach of her products has also broadened through time. Manna’s Alternative Herbal Products offerings are now available in malls and supermarkets in Region 12, particularly in the cities of Cotabato and General Santos. Luz also has clients in Zamboanga Peninsula, Davao region, and Northern Mindanao, as well as in cities and provinces in Luzon and Visayas such as Tuguegarao and Capiz.

Although Manna’s has not ventured into exporting yet, their products have already reached Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and the United States through Luz’s balikbayan friends.

Her products, particularly the herbal powder, are also being used by other entrepreneurs for their own alternative herbal items.

Aside from the enterpise’s financial success, Luz has been recognized by various organizations for her contributions in agri-entrepreneurship. In 2015, she was awarded Outstanding Farmer of the Year by the Ten Outstanding Farmer of the Philippines (TOFARM). She also received the Gawad SAKA for the Outstanding Agricultural Entrepreneur in 2016 from DA Region 12.

Some of their herbal soap variants: Tomato, Mangosteen, Milk and Oats, and Bignay

Not just a business, but a life-long ministry

Luz considers her venture a social enterprise since Manna’s is a business that does not only serve as a means of livelihood, but an enterprise that helps the community.

Luz believes that the expansion of the business or the recognitions she received are not the true measure of her success; the number of people helped by the firm is the true proof of triumph.

At present, Manna’s has a total of 32 employees in its production facility. They are responsible for the processing and packaging of Manna’s products. Luz also has eight personnel in her farm, taking care of plants and some pigs, as well as the production of Manna’s beauty soaps. She does not only help these people by giving livelihood but also by inspiring them to work, not just for themselves but for a cause greater.

“I always tell them: do not work for me; I can live a simple life.  Work for Manna’s. Work for what Manna’s stand for. I always try to inculcate Manna’s values in them, particularly taking care of themselves and the environment,” Luz stated.

Although she has the resources to plant and grow all her raw materials, Luz still prefers to outsource some of raw materials from about 30 small farmers in North Cotabato. Aside from helping them through buying their produce in a profitable rate, Luz likewise teaches them effective and efficient methods of organic farming, which is also one of her advocacies.

“I can actually produce my own raw materials, which can help me cut down my production costs. But I think that’s selfishness. The goal of this business is not to earn a big amount, but to help my community in my own small way,” she said.

When asked about her business plans, Luz admitted that she is already content of what Manna’s is at present. She just wants to continue promoting her advocacy of healthy living and taking care of the environment through Manna’s.

“I’m not getting any younger, so sometimes I have thoughts of quitting already. But I also tell myself that I shouldn’t because my dreams and my mission are not age-bound. I just have to continue what I am doing, and God will take care of the rest,” she said.

Furthermore, Luz plans to keep on partnering with government and non-government institutions in conducting trainings on agri-entrepreneurship and organic farming for other aspiring entrepreneurs and farmers.

“My friends sometimes tell me, ‘You keep on giving trainings. Don’t you know you are breeding your own competitors?’ Well, I just tell them that people with the same products as mine are not really my competitors. I see them more as my partners in this ministry. The more people engaged in this industry, the more aware people will be,” she recounted.

In the coming years, Luz hopes to continue doing what her heart has always been yearning for–reaching out to more people, encouraging them to live a healthy life and take care of Mother Nature. How much she will earn is just secondary.

Looking back in 2010 and figuring out what business to venture into, Luz has no idea someday she will have a social enterprise of her own. All she did was follow her heart’s desire. After eight years in the business, she has a manufacturing venture –with a shop and an organic hub – that remains her passion. Truly, as long as Luz and her people are fueled with devotion and love, Manna’s Alternative Herbal Products will continue to be a genuine, wonderful work of heart.