Tony Tiu: Landscape of Change

MANILA, Philippines - Though a business scion, Tony Tiu, as a child, would tell everyone that he wanted to be a farmer when he grew up. Fast forward and Tiu’s dream is a dream no longer. Not only is he a farmer now, he devotes his time to the empowerment of Filipinos who till the land.

With his fair skin, Antonio “Tony” Tiu is not your typical farmer — more like an assured, compleat suit totally at home in the boardroom. Tiu arrives for the interview on time, clad simply in a polo barong and plain black slacks. He is all business and focus, like a stallion biting at the bit, raring to get moving.

Tiu is the eldest son of third-generation Chinese immigrants (but he considers himself Pinoy, inside and out). At 36 years old, Tiu is the CEO, president and chairman   of AgriNurture, Inc. (ANI) — a company that takes pride in its integrated approach towards agriculture.

A bountiful purpose

In 1996, shortly after graduating from De La Salle University-Taft, Tiu traveled the countryside to sell post-harvest equipment as a favor to a friend. During his forays into the countryside, Tiu observed appalling conditions. “I saw so many opportunities, but at the same time there were so many people who were jobless, hungry, deprived of basic needs.” He continues, exclaiming: “There’s no reason to be poor! We’re part of an agri-nation. We have so many resources. We’re providing everything the world wants yet we’re one of the poorest countries.” It is for these very reasons that Tiu established ANI a year later.

From farming, production, distribution and even retail and franchise of crops from local farmers, ANI makes sure that all parties involved get their fair share of the harvest. For farmers, this means getting good prices for their produce. For consumers, it’s about getting high-quality crops that have undergone strict quality control. For the country, it’s a welcome start to showing its neighbors that it, too, can provide world-class produce.

By being ever-present in all stages of the supply chain of food production — from harvest to end use — ANI keeps track of the entire process of developing and selling produce, making sure that both quality and prices are closely monitored and controlled at all times.

Aside from safeguarding the quality and financial benefits for its local farming partners, the company also promotes and sells Philippine produce in overseas markets. ANI’s products enjoy such a high standard of quality assurance, that it has become one of the few firms accredited by the China Quarantine Office for the import-export of Philippine produce. “We at ANI would like to integrate the entire agricultural sector so there will be no more poor farmers in the country,” Tiu shares. “If every farmer is rich, then the nation is rich.”

Considering that about a third of the country’s population is involved in farming, Tiu’s math makes sense. He reasons that every Filipino, on a per capita basis, owns 2.2 hectares of land.

Bemused, Tiu expounds: “In smaller countries like Japan and Taiwan, if you have one hectare of land, you’re a millionaire. Here in the Philippines, even if you own five hectares, you’re nothing.” The travesty could be blamed on the farmers’ lack of access to the requisite tools and knowhow to cultivate the right kind of crop at the right time.

Banking on the land

ANI may be in the business of safeguarding Philippine produce both here and abroad, but Tiu believes that the company’s greater purpose lies even deeper: “We want to provide nourishment to the world,” he says. The only question is, how?

Tiu believes that charity starts at home, insisting that the first step in attempting to nourish the world is to provide nourishment to the Philippines. And what better way is there to do this than to inspire farmers to work — not just harder — but smarter.

After increasing revenue last year, ANI embarked on its latest endeavor: the Agricultural Bank of the Philippines. The bank was in answer to the dearth of available funding to support agricultural projects. Instead of lending money to its clients (underprivileged provincial farmers), the bank lends them with the kind of capital they need.

Farmers borrow seedlings, fertilizer and chemicals and pay with produce in return. If the farmers deliver the produce on time and with the right quality, then ANI guarantees the sale of their produce — thus writing off their debt.

Tiu explains that the product-based lending system protects the farmers from misusing their loans, which is common among poor farmers. Where cash can be used to buy appliances and other luxuries, fertilizers and crops can only be used for planting. This means that seeds will always be sown and that a time for harvest will always come, safeguarding the sustainability of the entire agricultural process at a grassroots level.

Before they know it, and as long as they follow the rules and guidelines set before them by ANI, the farmers become self-sufficient. Tiu has observed the change himself.

Whereas, at first, deliveries were done by tricycle, farmers that grew with ANI were soon thereafter able to invest in jeeps before eventually advancing to driving trucks. Eventually, these farmers were even able to purchase their own trailers. The increase in supply directly resulted in an increase in profit (because, in Tiu’s words, demand is constant: “People need to eat,”) and the farmers have benefited.

The business of sparking change

Although it seems to be a non-profit organization, ANI is an enterprise for profit first and foremost. Tiu strongly believes in balancing profit and heart, as this commitment is the basis of any successful modern outfit. “I think corporations all over the world are starting to realize that survival, or the measurement of success, for a company does not rely on the numbers alone, but on how much you have contributed to humanity,” he points out.

ANI began with Tiu’s consciousness of the Filipino poor. As such, the corporate social responsibility of the firm is ingrained in its very business model. “We want to make money,” he insists. “But at the same time as creating value for the stakeholders, we want shareholders (like our suppliers — the farmers) to be happy.”

It all starts with changing the mentality of the people. “I’m showing people there’s money in agriculture,” Tiu shares. However, not everybody has to be part of the agricultural sector to effect change. “Everyone has to find his own position in society,” he asserts. “I have a mandate from heaven to make a small difference in the agricultural sector, but not everyone has to take part. They don’t have to. It’s all about creating value for the nation using the talents you have.”

While confident about his purpose, Tiu admits that the mission is not easy. In fact, ANI has gained greater revenues from outside the Philippines. Yet, Tiu insists on whittling away at local barriers. “It’s my obligation to pursue this battle even if it isn’t worth it financially,” he asserts. “Why? Because this is our country. It’s my obligation to the Philippines.”

It is from this kind of resolute passion that Tiu draws the energy to carry the load — with the help of the farmers he serves and leads at the same time. “Planting rice is never fun,” he chuckles, borrowing from the children’s ditty. “Nobody wants their children to be farmers.” Yet, tirelessly, Tiu fights the good fight.

 “I’m showing people there’s money in agriculture. If a young guy like me can create something like this in a short period of time, why can’t you?” His goal is clear-cut: “I would like to see this country really uplifted. And I believe that agriculture can make that happen.”

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