Ayesha Vera-Yu

Special Relationship (Virtual)
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Because of the pandemic, Ayesha Vera-Yu was selected by Ashoka as a Special Relationship (Virtual) using an online process.

Introduction

Ayesha is unlocking the agency of Philippine rural folk to address the deeply rooted problems of poverty, hunger, and food insecurity by creating and connecting them to markets and empowering them to become self-sustaining communities that practice multi-crop, backyard farming, while all together reviving neighborhood-level barter markets.

The New Idea

Over a third of rural folk in the Philippines live in poverty, with the majority being farming and fishing families. Their economic situation is a symptom of a system that has stolen their agency: many farmers are engaged only in contract farming, do not own their lands, and have been conditioned to farm only one or two types of crops that are in demand in the market only to follow low prices dictated upon them by middlemen traders and private business owners. Most Filipino farmers suffer from an onslaught of oppression and marginalization - the inability to access market, data, and make informed decisions regarding their farming livelihood is exacerbated by the vulnerability of the country to the most severe of natural disasters which cause extreme damage to agriculture and property. Ask a Filipino farmer or fisher what they think of typhoons, pandemics, and lack of empowering support from the government to become better farmers, they respond with a strong sense of helplessness - we are small and poor, what can we do about it?

Ayesha is catalyzing these rural communities to regain their agency and feel powerful amid crises and disenfranchisement. By sparking multi-crop, backyard farming and reviving neighborhood-level barter markets through a program called Feed Back, rural folks have rediscovered the spirit of Bayanihan—the traditional Filipino custom of communal unity. The model is a simple but radical restructure for Philippine society and has three aspects to catalyzing rural agency: 1) backyard farming of vegetables 2) healthier lives and livelihood through eating and selling the fresh produce and 3) barter markets at neighborhood level. Feed Back works as a self-sustaining, affordable solution because Ayesha's organization Advancement for Rural Kids (ARK) trusts rural folk as equal partners and co-investors from the start, they introduce simple, replicable sustainable farming practices that improves rural diets and health, and they unlock community markets that facilitates mutual community care as a priority with touches of culturally relevant and fun programming.

With Feed Back and other programs of ARK, Ayesha has zeroed in on the key to self-sustaining initiatives: facilitating the opportunity for rural folks to be able to step into their agency and feel powerful. She is now working to change how schools, local government, and private organizations work with the rural folk by proving that an empowering partnership approach fares better in the long-term for the rural communities compared to other similar initiatives that may treat them as the beneficiary and not a key partner/implementer of the solution. In one year, Feed Back prevented the impending hunger and extreme poverty wrought by the pandemic in 49 communities of Coron and Capiz for a cost that can be afforded by the partner local government unit and the families and is continuously being sustained by the communities even beyond the set program period. In less than a year of operating Feed Back, ARK already garnered the interest of the country’s leading national consortium addressing food security called Pilipinas Kontra Gutom who has now positioned ARK to roll-out Feed Back nationwide— directly to over 200 at-risk communities or 250,000 at-risk Filipinos by 2023, and indirectly in other rural and urban areas through toolkits.

The Problem

A self-reported National Survey on July 3-6, 2020 indicated that roughly 30 million Filipinos, mostly children, experienced involuntary hunger, up by 12.1% from reported figures in December of 2019. Although instrumental in developing kids and preventing stunting, there is a lack of attention given to solving for sustainable food security. Many have resorted to mobile markets, food aid, and community kitchens or pantries. Although these solutions have helped, none of them solve the reason why so many are experiencing involuntary hunger: the failure of the Philippine market system to give livable incomes to millions of Filipinos and prioritize localized food systems, specifically in rural agricultural families. The jarring picture of hunger during the pandemic was the irony of increasing reports of hunger from rural communities, classified as Geographically Isolated and Disadvantaged Areas (GIDA), juxtaposed with news of rotting vegetables and produce being dumped as farmers could not sell their seasonal harvest to the main market of Metro Manila. In GIDA communities, 9 out of 10 households of public-school children (majority of which are rural folk) were food insecure and 2 out 5 of these households experienced severe hunger, triple the national severe hunger level.

Filipino farmers and fisherfolk, who compose the vast majority of the rural population, are consistently reported to be among the poorest, most malnourished, and vulnerable to involuntary hunger. Despite the country being rich in natural resources such as fertile land and marine fisheries, rural families remain at-risk because of the history of liberalizing the agricultural market, which favors middle-men, importation, and increasing the role of the privatization of services over state interventions.

Natural disasters like typhoons ruin the rural folk’s opportunities at a good harvest or catch, and their increasingly regular occurrence has created a sense of helplessness amongst rural folk as they view it as an unavoidable aspect of their trade. Dig deeper and typhoons or even the pandemic isn’t their biggest problem—when asked what farmers find the most pressing, they point to the volatility of the markets for their produce. Because farmers in the Philippines often don’t own their land and engage in contract farming, most plant only one crop (rice) and sell these at exorbitantly low prices to traders in anticipation of the typhoon season. Because the goal of the agricultural sector in the Philippines is not to feed the nation but business interests such as opening the economy, the market has influenced policies that favor private-sector interest over regulating agricultural prices to protect farmers and fisherfolk. In addition, the business-driven farming practices have also degraded land, make it harder for ordinary rural folk to produce a substantial amount of harvest, increased the price of inputs such as seeds and fertilizer, and introduced imported goods at low prices that further drive down rural folk’s potential income. These compounding problems of natural disasters, market shocks, and degraded lands often lead farmers into debt-bondage and deeper poverty.

While many programs seek to address hunger, malnutrition, and the poverty of farmers, many are doing so in silos. At the root of rural hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, is the loss of agency and power of rural folk and their alienation from the markets and land which they till. For example, the government has already responded to this crisis of hunger before by setting a budget and feeding program at public schools for at-risk kids. In 2018-2019, 2.3 million children were able to qualify and benefit from the government program, which was promising but only covered a portion of the hungry or malnourished children. Due to school closures, these departments are now exploring ways to provide nutrient-dense meals independent from the hot meals program. Other non-governmental organizations have also explored solutions such as Food Augmentation Programs, which prepared weekly vegetable packs bought from farmers and given to beneficiary families. Although promising, the solution depended largely on an institution to organize operations and still positioned the communities on the periphery as either the beneficiary or the supplier. Another solution mobilized 9 community kitchens that were run by volunteers to supply hot meals for 20 pesos on average and reached about 2000 kids daily. Although it was able to tide hunger for some time, it again didn’t place the community as the central actor of its operations and relies mostly on external volunteers. These programs are highly dependent on external resources to keep the programs alive and are effective in solving hunger for a short period but not sustainably. There is a clear opportunity to solve rural hunger by trusting rural folk with the capacity and deeper desire to be the most efficient partners in problem-solving a way out, long-term.

The Strategy

In 2009, Ayesha founded Advancement for Rural Kids (ARK) and introduced a market solution to address the problem of rural kids dropping out of school who were often children of farmers and fisherfolk experiencing poverty, chronic hunger, and malnourishment. The ARK School Lunch piloted a co-investment structure that partners with schools and parents to build a self-sustaining nourishing lunch program that has improved attendance rates, eliminated malnutrition, and sparked a new market for parents to earn a sustainable income. In 2020, with the closure of schools, ARK saw that the progress they were working on in ARK School Lunch would no longer be accessible due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From partnering with schools, ARK reworked their program to co-invest with those who can still reach the families—parents and barangay officials (the leaders of the Philippines’ smallest local government unit). In March 2020, they launched Feed Back, a vegetable exchange that creates a guaranteed market for families once a week for eight weeks. Feed Back worked quickly to address the threat of famine and extreme poverty due to the pandemic by instigating the creation of backyard gardens and community markets.

The ARK School Lunch and Feed Back work in similar ways, however, the difference is shifting the operational center of the program from schools and school gardens to family backyards and the local town squares. Although the ARK School Lunch program was able to deliver promising results such as a jump in attendance rate by 20%, dropping malnutrition rate from 30% to 0%, and all food for the lunches being bought 100% from the parents, the closure of schools meant families and kids were again at risk for hunger and economic setbacks. ARK leaped to shift quickly, and that move was able to bring their market solution closer to the community and their homes. Previously, ARK worked one-on-one with school heads, growing food in school gardens, and aimed for full-community self-sufficiency by the third year of operations. When they shifted to Feed Back, ARK was able to mobilize parents, kids, and community leaders as organizers of their own vegetable exchange, or barter market, for eight weeks, which led to addressing the looming community food insecurity in 5 weeks, without any international aid or dole-outs coming in. How Feed Back works is: 1) ARK gets the local government to co-invest with them to put up the village markets for eight weeks; 2) once the local government and families agree to partner with ARK, they begin communicating to the households that the market will happen in their area in 4-5 weeks and to plant 3 vegetable varieties their household likes eating, to be able to feed themselves; 3) when the market opens up, families can exchange their homegrown basket of 3 vegetable varieties which they grew in their homes for an average of 20 different vegetable varieties and a raffle coupon; and 4) the raffle portion and getting to meet in a safe place adds a layer of celebration through the joy of winning and gathering with neighbors—something every Filipino loves. The powerful shift to a 100% community-led food security solution is grounded in making farmers out of fisherfolk, enabling communities to source their food from within, and generating excess to sell to nearby villages and towns.

Due to the success of the first wave of Feed Back, many more communities and government agencies hope to implement the program. As a response, Ayesha and her team have piloted Fiesta Feed Back in November 2020, a lower-cost but more community-based version of the earlier Feed Back wherein each family's investment into the program was driven down from $55 to $5-1. They were able to drive down the price by shifting from cash payouts to raffle coupon incentives—a culturally inspired innovation that made families feel that the vegetable exchange was a festive occasion. The shift to raffle coupons resulted in an increase in community participation compared to the first version of Feed Back which experimented with cashouts.

In 2021, ARK is aiming to scale to 49 at-risk communities (or 3,000 families) by the end of the year, and several government agencies and private foundations are already working on partnering with the organizations to scale the program in more rural and even urban communities. A key partner is the Pilipinas Kontra Gutom consortium, which counts amongst its ranks the top NGOs, schools, private and public institutions that are committed to solving hunger. They are reeling in ARK to deploy to 150 at-risk communities by 2022, which puts Ayesha and ARK underway to impacting a quarter of a million lives in the most at-risk communities by 2023, not accounting for the indirect impacts they have on non-school aged children and members of the family not counted as farmers. The program’s community-led design is already underway to be replicated in other countries, such as Pakistan, Sierre Leone, and Burma, by local private organizations such as GT Foundation and Rotary Clubs, and supported by international organizations like Google, Facebook, and BNP Paribas. Ayesha is using the critical interest and opportunity on self-sustaining food security strategy to, in her own words, “positively influence how corporations, foundations, and governments partner and create truly sustainable solutions and systems wherein communities are trusted and treated as true partners, solutions come from within, communities' effect and fund the solutions on their own, and there is a clear exit and end to the intervention.”

Both the ARK School Lunch and Feed Back are designed towards community self-sufficiency and being 100% owned and led by the rural community. The ARK School Lunch is being fully run and sustained by the partner schools beyond the third year. While Feed Back is designed to launch and run for eight weeks—those in the first wave in May 2020 are still holding the weekly markets up to today, almost a year after the program launch. To be able to work with more communities, ARK is also shifting from a one-on-one, custom, and handheld approach they employed with schools, to one that is facilitative and toolkit-based, with weekly calls to troubleshoot with Feed Back organizers and marketing support to external partners to further build collective confidence in this program for all co-investors.

The Person

Martial law and family matters in the 1980s led Ayesha’s parents to decide to migrate to Oakland, USA. After several traumatic incidents in California, including the San Francisco earthquake and a robbery, the family decided once again to move to New York. Upon arrival in New York, Ayesha got accepted at a top charter school but was told she needed to repeat a year. She grew frustrated at the covert discrimination she was experiencing in America. In defiance, she decided to attend a public school instead where for the first time, she was exposed to a large diversity of people from different backgrounds. Longing for a way to connect back to her culture, she became active in Filipino-American initiatives in high school and college where she studied both biochemistry and world politics.

In 2006, Ayesha’s mom asked her if she could invest in the family farm in Capiz. Ayesha, keen to apply some of her biochemistry knowledge connect back to her homeland, agreed under the condition that she could restructure the farm to be fully organic and sustainable. She began spending more of her time restructuring the farm. In 2008, while she was in Capiz, a school teacher sought her out, hearing that she came from New York. They formed a partnership and began working together to improve the school. One time, Ayesha, the teacher, and the student’s parents gathered together. She asked them what type of help they would need, a brave parent shared that what they needed most was not funds to fix school infrastructure or buy school supplies, they have to address the hunger of the kids. Ayesha prodded and asked the parent “how would you suggest we do that?” and the parent simply said, “we do it the same way we fixed the roof—we partner!”

At that moment, Ayesha knew the parent was right and that the idea just needed some structuring and backing. She left her full-time job and decided to focus on this problem of rural hunger with the communities as her partners. While parents volunteering to provide kids with food could work short-term, there was the underlying problem that parents couldn’t feed their kids in the first place because they didn’t have enough stable income. Another layer is that kids shouldn’t simply be fed, they needed to be fed with nutritious food. In the following year, the ARK School Lunch was launched in partnership with the communities in Capiz. By the third year of partnership, the schools that took part in the program were able to fully sustain ARK School Lunches on their own.

In 2019, ARK was poised to share its model through a toolkit and partnerships with other organizations and countries. However, when the pandemic hit in 2020, Ayesha and her team were faced with the dilemma of rural communities backsliding deeper into poverty and hunger. They could’ve easily decided to roll out relief operations, but ARK was determined to showcase that trusting the communities as the primary agents of change and action and as the key partners in creating self-sustaining solutions. ARK rapidly pivoted and developed Feed Back based on their School Lunch model. Today, Ayesha is growing her ARK team as more communities and organizations are interested in rolling out ARK’s solutions and learning how they can also partner with communities and perpetuate self-sustaining community solutions.