East-West Founders Persevered and Won

Simon N. Groot at the 30th anniversary
of East-West Seed.
Michelle Robel, E-W plant pathologist,
poses with fruits of Emperor Sweet Pepper
which is now making farmers rich.
Ampalaya is a major interest of East-West plant breeders. They
have developed several hybrids which are big money makers
for a lot of farmers. These include Jade, Galaxy,
Galactica and Bonito.
The great success that the East-West Seed is enjoying today is the result of dogged perseverance and the strong belief that a good and reliable seed could have more lasting impact on our farmers than the billions of aid money from well-meaning donor nations and NGOs.

That could be very true because the impact of a good seed is directly felt not only by the small but also the big-time farmers. Countless farmers are continuing to benefit year after year from not just one seed but a series of improved seeds that the company’s researchers are churning out every year.

While East-West is considered the leading vegetable seed company in the Philippines today, achieving success was far from easy. The early years, starting 1982 when it was established by Simon N. Groot of the Netherlands and Benito M. Domingo of the Philippines, were particularly rough years.

Mr. Groot recalls during talks over lunch at the company’s 30th anniversary that it took them 10 years to reach the first $1-million mark in sales. After their first building was put up, they were already running out of money so that they had to buy second hand furniture for their offices. Up to this day, the P200-second hand table that Mr. Groot used in those difficult years is still kept at the East-West headquarters in San Rafael.

After achieving the $1 million annual sale, however, the sailing had become more smooth. Sister companies have since been established in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, India and China.

Promoting the “pinakbet” type of vegetables was a smart tack that East-West took. That’s because in “pinakbet” many kinds of vegetables are cooked together in one dish. In the authentic Ilocano pinakbet, as many as 15 or even more vegetables, including minor ones, are cooked together.

These include ampalaya fruit and shoot, eggplant, tomato, stringbeans, patani, radish fruits, alokon, paayap, sweet pepper, finger pepper, malunggay fruits, kadios seeds, gabi tuber, patola, okra, katuray flowers and bataw. Cooked with “bagnet” or broiled “dalag”, and just enough tomato sauce and water, the concoction could make a superb one-dish meal.

Mr. Groot said, they thought of promoting the pinakbet type vegetables because at that time, it was the favorite dish of former President Marcos. He has tried to promote the same dish in Indonesia but has not succeeded so far.

The production of superior varieties is just one part of the cycle. What is equally important is the dissemination of the varieties and the production techniques that go with the seeds.

The company has been successful along this line. It has put up demo farms in various places, has conducted workshops and seminars, conducted what it calls road shows and many more.

One project that has become successful is the Tanim Para Sa Kinabukasan project or TSK whereby the technicians of the company collaborate with school officials to put up a vegetable garden showcase right on the school campus. Here, the students participate in putting up the garden, in sowing the seeds, transplanting them and then caring for them up to maturity. At the end of the cycle, a harvest festival is held. Parents of the children and other target groups are also invited to see the  beautiful vegetables taken care of by the students and their mentors alike.

So successful has the TSK program become that the Oh My Gulay project started by Sen. Edgardo Angara has been hitched to the TSK. Now, to cover more schools, the gardening-in-charge in interested educational institutions are sent to the East-West for training.

East-West Seed is not only focused on the production of seed varieties. It is also focused on other means of improving productivity. One example of late is the promotion of grafted ampalaya planting materials. This technique is increasing the productive life of the crop by an additional 10 harvests. Then it is promoting what is called permaculture farming, which we will delve into in another write up.

At the 30th anniversary celebration of East-West last December 12, 30 outstanding vegetable farmers were honored for their exemplary achievements. Some of them have risen from poverty to become multi-millionaires because of the technologies they have adopted from East-West and other sources.
Simon Groot and Irene Sion reminisce the old days at
East-West. Here she is showing Mr. Groot the improvised
seed catalog which she used when selling seeds. Aside from
plant breeding duties, she also sold seeds of the company.
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