A farmer for a long time, Rolly Mateo, 43, had known the carabao as the quintessential "beast of burden". This was until last week when he and his colleagues in the Bantog Samahang Nayon Multi-Purpose Cooperative in Brgy. Bantog, Asingan, Pangasinan, were handed financial assistance by DOLE Regional Office No. 1 Director Grace Ursula Director with a P495,000 check to Mayor Heidee Chua of the local government unit of Asingan, which is a DOLE accredited co-partner in the implementation of livelihood projects in the municipality.

"Following the instruction of Labor and Employment Secretary Rosalinda Dimapilis-Baldoz in January to improve the delivery of its livelihood programs in convergence with the Departments of Science and Technology; Agriculture; Trade and Industry, and other concerned government agencies, we are implementing the first livelihood assistance project under the DOLE-DOST Convergence Program on Technology-driven, Resource-based, and Sustainable Livelihood Program in Pangasinan by helping the Bantog Samahang Nayon MPC," said Ursua.

Baldoz and DOST Secretary Mario Montejo signed in January a convergence program that will bring technology, livelihood, and employment on the ground. The convergence program is the two agencies' contribution to Project Rehabilitation Assistance on Yolanda, or RAY, but the DOLE is implementing the program in all regions.

Ursua said the cooperative will use the grant to purchase an additional 600-square meter lot for its milk processing center and 10 more carabaos. It will also buy antibiotics and vitamins for its animals. For this project, the LGU-Asingan shelled out P148,500 and promised to give the cooperative three more carabaos and a 400-square meter lot for its dairy processing center. The cooperative set aside a counterpart of P23,500.

At present, the cooperative has three carabao-based integrated $business activities, namely, dairy production and processing, meat production and sales, and organic fertilizer production. A total of 84 farmer-members benefit from these businesses.

Rolly and his colleagues earn P30,000 to P40,000 annually, on the average, from one dairy animal. The cooperative also sells carabao beef, or cara-beef, the meat of male carabao calves, and produces organic fertilizer from carabao manure.

Ten of the 84 cooperative members are trained as milk processors; 30 are engaged in carabao milking; and 20 are engaged in vermi-composting. The rest are engaged in carabao-breeding, rice production, and forage farming for carabao food.

Rolly and his colleagues, grateful to the DOLE for the assistance, said they will use the grant to provide employment to more farmers. "The carabao is also a better source of milk compared to goats and cows, as carabao milk has higher calcium, phosphorus, beta carotene and other nutrients, and much lower lactose and water contents," they said.

The signing of a memorandum of understanding among the DOLE, LGU of Asingan, regional offices of the DOST, DTI, Department of Agriculture; Philippine Carabao Center; Technical Education and Skills Development Authority; and the BSNMPC highlighted the awarding of the grant.

"As Secretary Baldoz said, the goal of this DOLE-DOST Convergence Program is to transform entrepreneurs into "techno-preneurs", Filipinos who are engaged in livelihood using available local resources and technologies developed by the DOST. With our strong convergence here today, I can see a bright future for the BSNMPC," Ursua remarked.

Mayor Chua, in thanking the DOLE and its partner-agencies, said in jest that the "people of Asingan will no longer be called "digitals", a pun for "dagitay taga-taltalon" (those from the fields). "We are already empowered with technology. Our products are now being sold not only in Pangasinan, but in places like Baguio City and La Union. With this convergence project, I am confident that Asingan and Pangasinan will become the home of carabao-based industries in the country," she said.

Under the MOU the DOLE will provide financial grant, take the lead in project coordination, capability building on labor education and productivity, and monitoring and evaluation. The Asingan LGU will provide infrastructure support in marketing, agriculture, social services and other support services.

The DOST will lend technical support and consultancy services in product packaging and labeling; productivity; and quality, such as food safety assessment, energy audit, clean production assessment, inter-agency design, and engineering assessment. It will also help cooperative register with the Food and Drug Administration.

The DTI will assist in marketing and linking the cooperative's various products through trade fairs and other market channels; and provide technical services on business registration, and expansion.

On its part, the PCC will provide for the processing center building; assist the dairy processors in developing Good Manufacturing Practices; conduct training and monitoring and evaluation of the health, feeding and breeding, and hygiene and sanitation of the carabaos; and conduct training to enhance the cooperative's organization capabilities. "The PCC pledges to provide the cooperative another 40 carabaos worth P350,000," PCC Director Gloria dela Cruz announced.

The DA, on the other hand, will provide de-wormers and vaccines for the livestock, and technical consultancy services. The TESDA, meanwhile, will provide basic and advanced skills training on dairy processing; conduct Skills Competency Assessment and Certification of members of the cooperative and of their families after graduating in vocational-technical courses.

Ursua said the regional office considered the marketability of its products, existence of facilities and equipment, availability of resources and raw materials, presence of assisting agencies, and the right values and attitude of the cooperative members in the selection of the BSNMPC as beneficiary of the convergence project.

"With the infusion of additional capital and technology assistance to the cooperative, already operating since 2005, we hope to create a sustainable enterprise which will be able to provide more income and employment to the people of Asingan," Baldoz said after receiving Ursua's report on the project.

"We have been doing a lot of livelihood efforts in the past several years, but the real challenge for the government is sustainability. The convergence of national and local government agencies to maximize the use of scarce government resources is what we need to build sustainable enterprises and to transform our people into 'techno-preneurs' borne out of their own ingenuity in utilizing local resources. By bringing  technology-based and innovation-led entrepreneurship, we are opening an array of livelihood opportunities to the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized workers," she added.

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