Lockdown Economy Philippines in an Urban Agriculture Business with Carlo Sumaoang

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Danielle Hormillosa

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview, we meet Carlo Sumaoang, the founder of MNLGrowkits, an urban agriculture business in Metro Manila. In 2015, Carlo established MNLGrowkits with changing the perspective of young individuals towards agriculture as its primary purpose. Surprisingly, MNLGrowkits’ sales rose during the pandemic. Usually, the business has seasonal demands which fall in gift-giving seasons when the Growkits serve as presents and alternatives to traditional ones like flowers during Valentine’s Day. Carlo ascribed the demand increase during the pandemic to humans’ need for food without the risk of going outdoors, and to cope with this development, MNLGrowkits had to strengthen its supply chain.

Watch the video version of the interview.

Carlo, share with us what you do as a business.

Carlo: First is that I’m part of the family business engaged in agriculture. For the longest time, around three decades already, we’ve been in the business of producing organic fertilizers and fertilizers for the agriculture sector. I’m also the Founder and CEO of MNLGrowkits, a young company founded back in 2015 advocating to change the perspective of agriculture, particularly younger people’s perspective on agriculture.

When we launched back in 2015, we conducted a survey. As a millennial myself, I was curious about how agriculture can be part of the lifestyle of the young ones. In the survey we conducted in 2015, we asked people living in Metro Manila, which is an urban area, one simple question, “What do you think about farming and gardening in general?” While we were waiting for the results of this small simple survey, we thought it’s going to be okay and that kids would very much be interested in agriculture. However, when we studied the numbers, almost eighty per cent of the young ones living in Metro Manila have zero or negative connotations about farming. Some of them said, “Farming is not for me”, “It’s dirty”, and “It makes my skin all dark”. Since then, the rest is history as we’ve been trying to push our products here in Metro Manila to really change that specific mindset that farming is not for young people, that farming is just dirty and that farming does not have any value in their life. We’ve been that for almost five years now and it’s been such an amazing ride!

You’re primarily focused on urban agriculture, am I correct?

Carlo: Yes, we focus on urban agriculture and that’s the circle I move around in.

Tell us about MNLGrowkits’ profile — where you are based, how many employees you have and your usual number of customers.

Carlo: MNLGrowkits is based in Metro Manila, hence “Manila” grow kits. When we launched in 2015, our demographic focus was specifically Metro Manila. However, we’ve been lucky enough to be featured in a lot of agriculture-related newspaper articles, so we now cover the entire Philippines. We have about 30 different retail partners across the country. The bulk of our partners are in Metro Manila and we also have some in Cebu, Davao and Baguio. Geographically speaking, we’re serving the entire Philippines.

MNLGrowkits sells the grow kits — it’s a small, simple box complete with everything you need to grow your plants. I have a box here without a label yet, as you can see it’s small but it contains everything you need. Two or three years after we launched, our razor focus was to target young millennials like me. Then, parents started picking up the product because they are seeing the value of the grow kits in teaching their kids, not just about farming, but also different virtues and values that go along with planting, such as patience, appreciation for greenery and eating vegetables. We ventured into this “family unit” type of clientele two years after we launched.

Just recently, we have added corporate clientele as well. A lot of big companies here in the Philippines are commissioning projects and purchasing kits from us for human resource activation. The companies give our kits to their employees to de-stress or have “plant baby”, especially since “plantitos” and “plantitas” are all the rage nowadays! They also give our kits as Christmas presents so we do have a lot of big clients who purchase our grow kits annually.

Our demographics of our usual clientele now is still the family unit. In fact, most of our initial customers who are millennials have now grown into these family units. Some of them are now in their thirties and have their own families, and they still embrace us as we see them progress through various life stages. We still have corporate clients and now also schools. We’ve been collaborating with a lot of universities here in the Philippines to promote grow kits as an educational material for students to study plants. In a nutshell, that’s what MNLGrowkits is doing.

Carlo, tell us something about your food drive partnership and collaboration with the Red Cross.

Carlo: Aside from MNLGrowkits, which is for urban gardening, I’m also affiliated with Slow Food Youth Network Philippines. It is an international organization advocating to provide good, clean and fair food for everybody. As you know, we’ve been ravaged by the recent typhoon Ulysses, so we are collaborating with the Red Cross to have a warm food drive. This is a collaboration between Slow Food Youth Network Philippines and the Red Cross.

During the start of the lockdown, many individuals did not have much to do at home and those who got bored have opted to grow their own plants and have become very engrossed in gardening. With the emergence of this bigger market, what has MNLGrowkits done to meet rising demands during the lockdown?

Carlo: It was kind of difficult for us because when the pandemic hit and the lockdown started, it was one of the biggest seasons for us. MNLGrowkits usually enjoys a seasonal pattern of demand and our busiest season is typically the gift-giving and Christmas holiday season that is happening right now. The next busiest season is Valentine’s Day because our kits are being chosen as an alternative to flowers; essentially, if you want flowers, you could grow your own flowers!

The kits were such a hit for families. When the lockdown happened, the initial impulse of everybody was to find food and where to purchase vegetables. No families want to go outside and risk their health just to purchase vegetables. I think that was a turning point in Metro Manila society to really look at agriculture and say, “Hey! I think I really need to start learning how to grow my own food.” That’s where MNLGrowkits came into the picture during the pandemic. We saw an uptick in sales when the lockdown happened. We serve different family units purchasing grow kits, mostly for growing vegetables. It was so amazing for us to realize that people would go back to their roots, particularly in farming and agriculture, once they are on lockdown and the mental clutter of work and other things are removed.

To cope up with the demand, we strengthened our supply chain. It was very hard for us to purchase anything during the lockdown, let alone buy seeds! Currently, seeds are apportioned to farmers who need to access them for planting vegetables that supply Metro Manila and we tried our best to leverage our networks given that the family is already engaged in the agriculture business. Managing the logistics to cope up with the demand was really hard during the lockdown. However, most of our suppliers agree with our advocacy work and they are in line with what MNLGrowkits does and its potential. Therefore, a lot of our suppliers went out of their way to provide us with supplies, such as the coconut pots, seeds, soil and fertilizers. We tried our very best to mobilize as many grow kits as possible because we saw an opening, an opportunity, to advocate and change the perspective of young people and those living in Metro Manila regarding agriculture. We did our best to coordinate properly with our suppliers to cope with the surge in demand.

How is your business doing in general right now?

Carlo: We can’t complain because it’s December and it’s a gift-giving season. The growth that we’re currently enjoying is really brought about by the pandemic. This does not negate all the suffering and businesses that closed during the pandemic. However, for the agriculture business, it has been an amazing ride due to the surge in demand as well as the increase in awareness. This is a time when agriculture is looked at as an industry that is really important in society right now. We’re enjoying the growth and we’re trying our best to really capture this opportunity given to us.

Carlo, do you know how your customers and your competition are doing?

Carlo: It’s a double-edged sword. When the pandemic started, we’re confident because we’re the biggest company in terms of selling grow kits. Then the pandemic happened and of a sudden, we saw a lot of competition, which we are totally okay with. It only goes to show that this is really a time for urban agriculture to shine. We saw how MNLGrowkits started back in 2015 and now when we see other entities and companies push the narrative we advocate for, we don’t take it negatively and we look at it as something constructive. The more people selling grow kits, the more opportunity there is to change people’s mindset about agriculture and farming. At the end of the day, this is an advocacy that we don’t keep to ourselves; this is advocacy that we would like to share with our competitors. It’s such an amazing and big opportunity for everybody in agriculture right now.

You mentioned earlier that the yuletide or gift-giving season is generally an advantageous setting for MNLGrowkits. What is the outlook for the coming few months?

Carlo: Before the holiday season, we saw an uptick in sales, so we really want to try and sustain that because it’s like a gift given to us! Again, this is not to negate all the hardships that all our fellow small businesses have encountered during the pandemic. For us specifically at MNLGrowkits, we’re very thankful that the awareness is there. Our outlook is towards an ongoing, exponential growth rate up until the first two quarters of 2021. A lot of brands, even cosmetic brands surprisingly, are getting in touch with us. We’re trying to collaborate and join the green movement of knowing how to plant your own food, or being a “plantito” or “plantita”. Soap and facial wash companies are also collaborating with us, which blows our mind! We’re very happy because these companies are embracing agriculture now as part of their branding and advocacy.

You mentioned having problems with logistics during the pandemic, can you name three things that you need help with?

Carlo: As a business owner, when I started MNLGrowkits it was a single proprietorship and now fully a corporation registered for almost five years. Whenever people ask me this question, I always say that at the very heart of MNLGrowkits is an entrepreneur like me running a business. The first thing that entrepreneurs need to realize is that they need help because it’s really hard to run a business. Luckily for us at MNLGrowkits, I have the most amazing partners that help me sustain the growth. As an entrepreneur, specifically, if you’re just starting, you have to acknowledge that you need help. This happened to me when I started MNLGrowkits and it came to a point that the limitation of the business is my own skill sets. I was being pulled in so many directions and asked to collaborate with a lot of companies, and I am just one person. At the end of the day, acknowledging that you need help physically and financially, as well as with leg work, definitely go a long way. It has been our mantra at MNLGrowkits to acknowledge help when we need to. I think that is more of a universal and all-encompassing answer, but I can’t think of any that MNLGrowkits need right now. Essentially, I think what we need is the proper mindset to handle and deal with our needs and seek help.

Carlo, tell me what is different with MNLGrowkits compared to other urban gardening shops?

Carlo: You put me on the spot there, Julie! This is really just me stating the facts of how we do things at MNLGrowkits: when we started, many seed companies already had their own version of grow kits, but what is lacking in big seed companies is insight. I think they forget that if you’re trying to market a grow kit, you have to know your market and how they think. We have invested in research and interviews, which provided us with so much insight into our target market of young people. This target market is image-centric; they want what they purchase and use to look great on Instagram, so we try our best to make our grow kits to be as “Instagram-able” as possible, among other things. These are just my observations on the differences between our kits and those from other companies. Nevertheless, it’s about knowing what your customers are and the way they make purchases. These are what separates us from other seed companies’ grow kits.

As we move forward we are starting to see a lot of competition in the market right now, but our advantage is that MNLGrowkits is backed up by real farmers. My family business has been in the industry for almost 30 years. We know our soil, our seeds and how to properly grow our plants; that has been the edge of MNLGrowkits since we’ve seen many competitors. But again, we don’t hate our competitors! We are actually thankful for them.

To recap what separates from our competitors first is insight. We learn and adapt to our customers and actually shifted our focus from Millennials to Gen Z’s and Edgers. More of our marketing tonalities and campaigns are currently geared towards Gen Z’s now more than Millenials. However, what you see on our growing kits is just the marketing part. At the very core of our product is a plant kit backed by a real agricultural company with real technical know-how. We mix our own soil, have our own patented fertilizers, and collaborate with big companies. In fact, some of our competitors have shifted their grow kit manufacturing to us. MNLGrowkits is becoming the go-to grow kit because big agriculture brands trust us in executing properly.

About the Guest

MNLGrowkits was set up in March — 2015 by Carlo G. Sumaoang, a marketing practitioner who heads the Sales & Marketing division of their family business, Novatech Group, a biotech manufacturing company that mainly produces Probiotics for animals and is also the company behind the country’s most trusted organic fertilizer brand, Durabloom.

Spending most of his days working on the countryside as Novatech’s marketing head, he realized that there’s something fun, essential and important missing in the modern-day urban landscape. Having all the agricultural and technical resources within his reach, he decided to put up MNLGrowkits to try to fill this gap, this missing link of having access to easy to do, interactive, fun and modern-day organic grow kits.

MNLGrowkits started out as a small experimental project last December 2014 and was officially in business starting March 23, 2015. Relying on guts, passion and Novatech Group’s high-performing farm inputs, organic fertilizer and technical know-how, Carlo started MNLGrowkits by initially offering its organic grow kits to close friends and relatives who are also into organic farming. A couple of months and a handful of successful grow kits after, it is now being managed by a team of highly passionate millennials who make sure that the company develops and maintains strong partnerships with different institutions; companies and individuals who collectively help it continue what it started.

Official website: www.mnlgrowkits.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mnlgrowkits

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mnlgrowkits/

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.