“I don’t see the price as the problem. There will always be a price war. What has to be done is to market the benefits of the product, so the people will patronize it. Once the people know the benefits, they will buy the product,” says Jorge D. Aguilar Jr., founder of Nutrition and Beyond Corporation (NBC), a pioneer in the sale of iron-fortified rice (IFR) in the local market.
What the iron does, according to nutritionists, is that it helps carry oxygen into the blood and when that happens, the body system works better. One becomes more agile and less sickly. The brain too functions better. Ergo, it is important that the population is not iron deficient and this is addressed through fortifying rice with iron.
Why venture into iron-fortified rice
“Rice is a competitive business. Anybody with little capital can get into it,” Aguilar says.
His family has long been in the rice milling business. His father, Jorge D. Aguilar Sr., ran an all-Japan machinery in his rice mill in the 70s when hardly anyone was using said kind of machine. The younger Aguilar likewise gambled on the iron-fortified rice when most capitalist would not venture in it.
Sometime in 2007, a common friend and fellow businessman introduced Aguilar to Dr. Imelda Agdepa and Marcela C. Saises from the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-FNRI). These food scientists from FNRI explained to him the need and benefits of the rice fortification technology and encouraged him to adopt it in his business. Sensing the sincerity and commitment of the two scientists, he decided to give it a try.
The fortification technology is not really new. But what made the difference is that through FNRI’s extensive research, they were able to elevate the IFR to such a level where its taste, look, and texture comes very close to regular rice while retaining the iron component.
Is the market ready for IFR?
Breaking into the market was difficult at first but through the help of the provincial and local governments, Aguilar was able to introduce the iron-fortified rice into the market. Market-testing was done in 2008 in Bataan and Zambales. NBC was established in 2012 and has been a major supplier in almost all towns in said provinces.
At the start, there was a two-peso price difference between the IFR and the regular rice in the wet market and this turned off some people. However, despite the difference in prices, Aguilar does not believe that the price is a problem.
“As it is, the price is at the level where it is affordable. Consumers from Bataan and Zambales can afford it,” he says.
And he believes that the price of IFR can still go down a bit should the volume on demand increase; that is, if more Filipinos will make it their staple.
The Philippine Food Fortification Act of 2000 or Republic Act 8976, “An Act Establishing the Philippine Food Fortification Program and for other Purposes,” has been around for over 15 years. And as iron deficiency is prevalent in large part of the Filipino population, the FNRI was tapped to provide solution to the problem.
Despite the law that says rice should be fortified, the consumption of IFR is still not as massive as that of the regular rice. The greater challenge is in the marketing. More Filipinos need to be aware of the benefits of iron-fortified rice. Some people think that they might get an iron overdose if they eat IFR daily, or that they get healthy after a certain number of consumption. But these are misconceptions.
Having a hard time getting into the low end market, Aguilar decided to add iron to his high-end rice, and this succeeded in the supermarket. He now regularly supplies IFR in some known supermarkets in Manila.
The expense is not so much in the process of rice production or product. The major costs go to marketing or promotion. The packaging alone is costly, such as the production of label sticker or the vacuum pack which run out after about three months. That translates to a capital that lies asleep in three months. For the town market, he uses the ordinary plastic, but for those in the supermarket, he uses vacuum package.
A promotion activity, such as food tasting in one supermarket, can cost at least P10,000 a day because of the fees for the supermarket and promo staff, and purchase of some dishes to go with the rice.
Aguilar believes that people have yet to be aware of the health benefits of the IFR and that the government can help a lot in its promotion. The market .though is expanding. Five years ago, Aguilar was the sole supplier of IFR in Zambales and Bataan but now there are other players who come from other parts of the country. The good thing is that he has been getting inquiry from as far as Mindanao. Moreover, he is also looking into the possibility of getting into IFR export.
FNRI fortification technology and other services
Aguilar attended a rice seminar in Bangkok and he was both proud and surprised that the Filipino experts are well regarded by the foreigners in the said conference.
“The way I look at it, ang DOST… like for example noong nakasama ko sila sa rice seminar na yun, they were well regarded by the international team. Hindi sila yung basta masasabi mo na may dumating na Amerikano na authority dito sa ganitong technology, sa tabi lang sila. Noong nakita nila sina Dr. Agdeppa, parang long lost friend. Hindi sila yung tipong nagmamalaki sa mga taong ito. They know that these Filipinos also know what they also know. We’re at the same level. Ngayon lang ako nakakita ng hindi ba ‘Amerikano ko, ikaw Pilipino ka.’.Nakita ko, wow, ang taas ng tingin ng Amerikano sa Pilipino (The way I look at it, DOST…like when I had a chance to be with them in a rice seminar, they were well regarded by the international team. It was not like they (DOST) were just at the sidelines when American authorities came over. When they saw Dr. Agdeppa, they were like long lost friends. They (Americans) were not the type who would act haughtily. They know that these Filipinos also know what they also know. We’re at the same level. That was the only time that I did not see any ‘I-am-American-you-are-Filipino’ attitude. What I saw was how high these Americans regarded Filipinos),” he says.
He also found that the FNRI-developed rice fortification produces better results and is far more superior compared with those produced from other Asian countries, which turned brown or orange when cooked. FNRI technology has made IFR sparkling white, tastegood, and smell good too. Laboratory tests also showed that Filipino IFR has better efficacy.
FNRI has been tapped not only by the government but also by large food manufacturing companies for research and technology assistance. Their R&D and services also benefit entrepreneurs, especially those in the food business. Some of their services are Technology Commercialization and Transfer, Food Pilot Plant Services/Technologies Business Incubator (TBI), Food Processing Facility Development in the regions, Food Analytical Testing Services and many others. For details on the Institute’s services, visit http://www.fnri.dost.gov.ph/ (By Geraldine Bulaon-Ducusin, S&T Media Service, DOST-STII)
Jorge D. Aguilar Jr. with his products: iron-fortified rice and brown rice with their respective labels.