Cynthia Villar’s dream: One livelihood project in every town
John A. Magsaysay (The Philippine Star) - April 30, 2016 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines – I was born to a mother and a grandmother who were both hardworking, who were all breadwinners of the family,” recalls Senator Cynthia Villar on her seven-hectare Villar SIPAG Farm in Barangay San Nicolas Dos, Las Piñas City. Raised by a grandmother who sold betel nut at the local palengke and a public school teacher mom, the senator is not only the strong woman behind her real-estate developer and public servant husband; more recently, she’s at the frontline of national development. 

“I know that being a senator is legislative work. But in addition to lawmaking, I want to create practical projects that can help the country,” Sen. Villar notes. In 1995, she founded the Villar Social Institute of Poverty Alleviation and Governance (Villar SIPAG), a non-stock, non-profit foundation built to complement the entrepreneurial and agricultural development measures she and her husband Manny have introduced in Congress. 

“We have three major advocacies: helping OFWs, environmental protection and of course creating livelihood opportunities to reduce poverty,” she explains.

Making Success Sustainable

For well over a decade, the Villar SIPAG has established a model that defies most of the existing foundations and institutional social development practices in the country. “One of our missions is teaching the right values. If you dole out, you are not teaching the right values.”

She adds: “If we want a country with inclusive growth, we have to focus on strengthening our backyard economy” to solve the vicious cycle of poverty and dependency, starting with every household’s self-sustenance. “If you are a farmer or a fisherman, and your wife has a homebound livelihood, between the two of you, you can surpass the poverty line.”

From modest beginnings, Sen. Villar earned a business administration degree at UP and MBA from New York University. Now, at age 65, she wants to pass this success on to others: “If I can teach mothers how to be breadwinners, and their children see them working hard to provide for the family while growing up, I can bring up a hardworking generation.”

Self-sustenance is important to Sen. Villar, whose foundation initiatives are financed by Vistaland and Camella Homes ventures, now that Congress’s Priority Development Funds have been scrapped. She believes in earning one’s own way. “The first thing I’m doing is to make the Villar SIPAG Foundation self-sustaining. I won’t be a senator forever. We build earning capacities for the foundation so if there are no institutions to support it, it can go on because there is a source of income.”

Problems Into Solutions

One could call the 32.69 square-kilometer city of Las Piñas idyllic. “In Las Piñas, we don’t really have any problems,” she says. “Our poverty incidence is only 1.8 percent out of 100,000 families, so that’s only 1,800 families living below poverty line.”

One problem, though, was flooding brought by the Las Piñas and Zapote rivers. “Our rivers used to overflow because of garbage. We had to find a way to keep people from throwing trash in the river. So I thought if they get something out of it, they will cooperate. This is livelihood.”

Her first livelihood project was water lily processing. “We took them out of our rivers to prevent further flooding and turned them into handicrafts, taught to us by an exporter,” she recalls. At the Las Piñas Arts and Crafts Center in Barangay Talon Dos, a nuisance overgrowth is now turned into a valuable cash crop. Water lily stalks are dried, flattened, cut into uniform sizes and woven into mats, bags, footwear and furniture, and sold in both domestic and export markets. The center currently employs Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) recipients, augmenting their income to up to fivefold daily. “After five years, we were able to remove all our water lilies from our rivers. Did you know this is a sign that a river is clean?” Villar mentions. Now the center sources their water lilies from the Pasig River and Rizal — going national to turn waste into progress.

Walking a few steps to the nearby barangay plastic waste processing plant, we view another project. “We started our plastic school chair project back in 2013. I read about it in a magazine: a group of Davao City students who were able to invent a school chair factory out of waste plastics,” Villar recalls. While those PET bottles are easily fished out from garbage for recycling, the processing plant focuses on salvaging something even more prevalent: plastic sachets, up to 200 kilos daily, that can be turned into 10 school armchairs that are light, sturdy and durable, using solar-powered machines. The plant currently employs 20 heads of family, able to earn a minimum of P2,000 weekly. “The plastic chairs we produce we are able to give to schools throughout the country, about 50 chairs each,” Villar notes.

And to finance the operations of the purely philanthropic plastic armchair facility, Villar SIPAG turns to a more lucrative operation: the coconut husk processing plant in Barangay Elias Adana turns 8,000 discarded coconut husks a day into 600 meters of “coconet,” a revolutionary product made of woven twine from coconut fibers that can curb soil erosion. “This technique was invented by Dr. Arboleda of Bicol University. We are able to sell our coconets to land developers, and half of the proceeds go to the salaries and the other half finances our plastic chair factory,” Villar explains. The facility, in turn, provides jobs to 42 families, giving them the stable means to earn as much as P5,000 a week.

“Next is kitchen and garden waste for composting,” Villar continues. “We have 70 composting facilities that produce 60 tons of organic fertilizer every month.” To get a better perspective on how the dirty business of waste can turn into clean nutrients for plants, we visit the kitchen waste compost facility in Brgy. Pamplona Dos. Here, barangay-employed waste collectors, or Biomen, go around for each half day, collecting up to 80 percent of biodegradable wastes. “Our composter was developed in UP Los Baños. We can’t afford imported technology. We can only afford local technology. But these are local technologies that work,” Villar shares. The compost processed from Villar SIPAG’s barangay kitchen waste facilities are then packed and distributed to organic farmers around the country.

“When it’s barangay-based, the mothers can look after their children. They can walk home any time. Sometimes, their kids can even help. So it’s a win-win situation, and at the same time, our city was able to save on garbage expense. Now, we are able to process 70 percent of our waste,” Villar notes.

Villar’s efforts have supplied jobs to 500 Las Piñas families, but now that her public service is growing on a nationwide scale, the senator and her foundation still have a long way to go. “My dream is to build one livelihood project in every town in the Philippines. That’s 1,600 towns. I’ve only built 800. I’m only halfway done. I want to build 200 a year for the next 12 years,” she says.

Farming For The Future

“I’m not a teacher, but once I learn something, I can teach it,” the farmer-senator shares as we walk through the muddy paths of her Villar SIPAG Educational Farm. Judging from the crops raised organically on the family-owned farm, it seems like an ideal setting for the hardworking senator to relax and unwind. But, no: half of the farm really is due to the lawmaker’s duties as chairman of Agriculture in the upper chamber. 

“I’m not an agriculturist, I’m a finance person. But I realized that if you have the financial ability, you can apply it in everything you do to make it profitable,” she explains, before shedding light on how depressed rural farmlands can actually be turned to yield a profit.

 “According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), our chance for food security in 2050 is to maintain the family farms, not the big corporate farms. This is true all over the world,” she notes. “It’s why I am earnest in teaching them because if they don’t earn much from it, they will leave it. It’s a race against time. We have to teach them to earn more (from farms), and they will choose to keep and continue them.”

So, in the foundation’s model farm — which aims to be completely powered by alternative energy in the next few years — Villar and her team of farming experts raise crops in the most sustainable, cost-effective way.

Through the process of agri-ecology, farms can now be empowered to row multiple crops, with a more profitable yield, while cutting costs on synthetic fertilizers and outdated farming methods. Call it a new farming revolution, but, as the practical senator puts it, it’s only “the call of the times.” “Teaching farmers to do more breaks the cycle of poverty. They only need to learn. Teach them to grow multiple crops, to raise livestock so they will have multiple sources of income, given the same plot of land,” she explains.

But, as a legislator, Senator Villar understands that the practice must be complemented by priority measures, to ensure that its effects are institutionalized. “That’s why, in the Senate, I’m focused on hearing about agricultural smuggling. These smugglers will kill our backyard farms. So, recently, we passed a bill in the Senate declaring agricultural smuggling as economic sabotage, which is an unbailable offense. We need to protect and support the industry that feeds us,” she explains.

With a staggering 38.3 percent poverty incidence among our farmers, and in light of recent headlines about our own food producers growing hungry in the countryside while our ASEAN neighbors surpass agricultural target goals year after year, Senator Villar understands that real development, particularly in the farmlands, must go way beyond politics.  Sen. Villar advocates rebuilding what was lost to our backyard businesses because of idleness, patronage, misinformation or, simply, hopelessness. It can take a lifetime of dedication and hard work, but she knows it can be done.



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For more information about Senator Cynthia Villar’s SIPAG Foundation, visit its website at

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