Ecology of Dignity: Creating a Groundbreaking Business through Empathy and Care

Tania Dias
Oct 12, 2020 · 15 min read

Interview with Cherrie Atilano, Global Food Security Champion and Award-winning Agriculture Entrepreneur

“When you’re thinking about making change, you need to address the problem of connecting; of being grounded to your soil. People who do this are more humane in the process”

Humanity in Tech is on a mission to define and empower humane leadership for the 21st century. In this supercharged technology era, we, as communities, must choose to create a future that is inclusive, sustainable, and empowered, where every human being has the right to thrive. Through stories and experience, we are uncovering the leadership capabilities needed to safeguard human value and prioritize well-being in this technological age. Our goal is simple: inspire and cultivate a new generation of humane leaders that is ready to shape the future, leaving no human behind.

For this two-chapter interview, we sat down with Cherrie Atilano to discuss her meteoric rise as a global leader in the fields of agriculture, nutrition and sustainable development.

Cherrie Atilano is the Founding Farmer, CEO, and President of AGREA — Agricultural Systems International, Inc., a social enterprise that is creating the world’s first replicable one-island economy that is zero hunger, zero waste, and zero insufficiency. Through the ‘Ecology of Dignity’ approach, AGREA aims to help eradicate poverty for farming and fishing families to alleviate the effects of climate change and establish food security in the Philippines.

Cherrie is a High-Level Ambassador of the United Nations Scaling Up Nutrition and UN Global Food Systems Champion, an Advisory Board member of the World Bank Solutions for Youth Employment, and a Young Global Leaders (YGL) recognized by the World Economic Forum as a remarkable leader under 40 years old. She has 22 years of experience in sustainable food systems and inclusive agribusiness and is a multi-awarded entrepreneur and ambassador on agricultural issues at the national and international levels.

In this first chapter, Cherrie defines her ideas of success as being measured by the number of vulnerable people she is able to carry with her into the last mile. She centers her work around her lifelong questioning of why farmers, who produce our food, are also the ones who suffer the most from food insecurity. Cherrie founded AGREA as a for-purpose business initiative designing groundbreaking economic development solutions centered around a culture of dignity and profound care for the hungriest people in the food chain.

Edited by Alex Artiach and Tania Dias. [Editor’s note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

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Tania Dias & Alex Artiach: You and your team tirelessly work to lift farmers out of poverty and promote global food security. What inspires you to do your work?

Cherrie Atilano: I’ve always wanted to live a useful life. I don’t mean a successful life, but a significant one. One that helps a lot of people. This has meant living on my own terms, controlled by my own power and my own happiness.

I’ve always believed that it is about connecting your happiness with other people’s happiness. This has been my guiding principle. Living a useful life is measured by how many people you bring into the last mile and to the finish line. It’s how many people whose lives you’re able to lift in the process.

I got lucky I grew up in a very loving home being the youngest of five. However, I lost my dad when I was three years old. Learning to live without a father was an eye-opener for me. My father was such a good entrepreneur and the best provider to our family when he was alive, but we almost lost everything when he died. My mom, who’s a single housewife, had never worked and with the little money left, she started a school cafeteria to sustain the family single-handedly. A lot of people who owed my dad money didn’t pay us back and it was a real struggle. So I started sending myself to school through scholarships.

But at the end of the day, my mother would always remind me that, to be very good, you need to help people. You need to measure how much you help others. That is the distance between your brain and your heart. If you can’t measure this distance, then you have forgotten about life.

If you are working on something brainy or brilliant but you’re disconnected from your passion, your heart — — then you cannot really live a meaningful life.

I think to do this you need to always have a sense of gratefulness. If you are grateful for the small things, then you will always share things with others. You will always have an overflow of love in your heart that will push you to share with others.

So it’s been embedded in me that, to be significant, you have to help others ascend in life. At the end of the day, especially during a COVID pandemic, it doesn’t really matter how much money you have now. All of us are affected.

What is more important is how you lead during the tough times. How can you help more people in the toughest of times? How can you offer a helping hand to those who feel helpless and have nowhere to go?

I’m not saying I’m Mother Theresa, I am far from her. But for me, the question is always about how I can be of purpose and of use to people.

Would you say you have found your calling? How did you find it?

My life has revolved around agriculture for 22 years, since I was 12 years old. I attribute this to Personality, Passion, and Purpose.

First, my personality. I grew up on a sugarcane farm, where my father used to do business and managed it. Growing up on a farm, you witness a lot of people and a lot of farmers suffering. Their job isn’t easy. This early experience paved the way for me to be more giving and more compassionate. You could see the disparity between the owners of sugarcane fields and farms, who are super rich, and all their farmers who live below $1 a day. Growing up in this environment and with my family’s guidance, molded my personality.

After that, I became very passionate about agriculture. Growing up, we were always reminded that we needed to study harder so we didn’t end up working on a farm. It was a very hard job. But every weekend, I would have no playmates because they were working on the farms. So I would run away from the house and work in the sugarcane fields. We would play under the irrigation canals, like rainwater with the kids from the farm. So, I grew up seeing kids who were farmers and I would ask them why they were not in school. The kids could not afford to go to school or university. They were trapped in a vicious cycle. Their parents were farmers and laborers, and so were very poor. They would marry young, at 15 or 16, and then give birth. And then their children work as well on the farm. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Growing up I was very observant, and through this I became passionate.

When I was 12, I was at a scholarship center and I read a book about intensive gardening. The book said that when you are poor, 100% of your income goes to food. 70% goes to rice, 30% goes to a side dish. So there is nothing left for your other needs at home, education, roof on your head. The book said if you know how to plant vegetables at home, you could save up to 30% of your expenses. If this meant being able to put a roof under someone’s head, you could send someone to school. As a 12-year-old I was really curious about this.

I always say if you can’t find your passion, find out what your curiosity is.

So I got lucky because I found something I was so passionate about. My curiosity led me to learn more and want to help. So I read that book and went home that Saturday afternoon. I told my mom, I really want to teach farmers. My mom said, “What? How do you teach farmers?” I repeated it and asked her to buy me a bike. I wanted to go to the Sari-Sari stores. These were small convenience stores in small villages and communities. People mostly would gather over at those stores, drink alcohol, and spend their free day there. I decided I needed to go there and teach farmers. It was like my first business pitch. My mom got me a bike, my brother taught me how to ride a bike, and I started to teach farmers in the Sari-Sari stores on the weekend. That was the only time they were there. They would get drunk, impregnate their wives, and another baby would come out and the cycle would continue. So, it became a process.

I remember I was 12 or 13 years old. My sister and I were teaching farmers how to compost in front of their houses for example. I got so passionate about agriculture that my mom said that I needed to stop teaching on the weekends so I could be class valedictorian to get a scholarship to pursue a degree in Medicine at university. And you needed to be number one in your class to get a 100% scholarship to receive a free education. So, to make a long story short, I made it.

But during graduation, a lot of farmers came to congratulate and thank me for all the help I had given them. I told my mom, I really want to go into agriculture. So instead, I applied for a scholarship in the Province of Negros Occidental to study agriculture. And, it became a journey.

You have spent your career empowering farmers. Why is this so important?

In developing countries, if you think about the urban poor, a slum dweller is the face of poverty. If you think of the rural poor, it is always a farmer that comes to mind. And to me, I’ve been driven by a simple question: How is it that the people who produce our food are the poorest and the hungriest? Why is it that people who spend the day under the scorching heat of the sun all day, from 4 am to 6 pm, come home and don’t have any food for themselves? They live on less than $1 a day. These are the questions I thought about growing up. I think this is a crime. They don’t have any money to send their children to school or repair a leaky roof during the rainy season.

I think there is something wrong with the entire food formula. There is a lot of exploitation in the process. There are people earning money out of this. The system isn’t fair or ethical. So, there are a lot of people suffering on the ground because they don’t have much knowledge or educational attainment. I think education determines the extent of opportunities people can have access to.

And we don’t invest much in our food producers because we don’t care enough. The moment you have food on your plate, you don’t really care where it comes from. Rarely do we know how our food was produced and who produced it.

So, I think there is a problem of not caring enough in our food production formula. There is a problem of “fairness” in the entire formula of trade — throughout the whole supply chain. It’s a systemic problem.

I think that our societies and food systems should care more for those who suffer the most, and take into account their happiness in this economic development model.

If we only think in plain business terms, the question will always be to determine what is the cheapest possible commodity and how can we cut costs at all levels. But if you take a step back and look at the entire formula you rapidly understand that someone must lose in the process. On the one hand, consumers don’t know what the true price of their food is, and on the other hand, traders and intermediaries earn the surplus profit. So who ends up losing out in this process? Most of the time, it is the farmers.

When I studied agriculture at university, I would go into farming communities and ask them questions. Their reality was clear. They were trapped in an ecosystem where the trader provides the finances. Traders who are educated say, “It’s okay, I will lend you the money. Thousands of dollars. At the end of the harvest, I will buy everything for a set price.” The trader has already computed everything and the farmer doesn’t know. So no matter what the farmers produce, their prices are already decided. They cannot argue with the price anymore. But because some farmers don’t have enough education to compute and project their harvest and income, they lose out. And they get trapped with huge debt.

This trap is generational. Some of the farmers inherit land from their parents. So its layers and layers of being trapped in this system. Sometimes it is hard for them to just get out and repay the debt. This is how manipulation and exploitation still continue.

In this entire formula, farmers are suffering. I truly believe that our food production systems need to account for this.

So when I studied agriculture, I wanted to analyze it like in a lab. I minored in economics to better understand the economics of things. I want to learn how to create an ethical supply chain, where caring was part of the demand for suppliers. So I decided I wanted to be an intrapreneur in the process because if I was doing business, I could influence the system. I could create an example of how things could be done and this would inspire more people to do so too.

You’ve mentioned in other interviews that farmers are really humane. At Humanity in Tech, we’re on a mission to understand what this means. Can you tell us more about this idea?

Farmers are some of the more resilient and generous people I know. I say this because when you go to farming communities, oftentimes they don’t even know how to read or write. Farmers are so dependent on people helping them. Unfortunately, they feel people are helping them but, actually, they are being manipulated. That being said, even though they are dependent on others, they are some of the realest people out there. They may not know much about school but they know how to live. And so, to me, farmers have been my best teachers because of their resilience. For example, in the Philippines, we have about 20 typhoons a year. On the day right after the typhoon, farmers are always the first people out of their houses. They bring their shovel and travel back to the farm, knowing that their crops have been severely affected. They are the first ones to check on their crops because they need to survive. Their work is their only means to survive. And they do this, with a smile on their face.

When I visit a farming community, I never starve. Because they sometimes have very, very little produce but they love to share it with me. So every time I go, I eat very well because they are very generous. And because of their generosity, I have to ask myself, how can people be so exploitative of people who are so giving? Farmers are also the most hospitable. They’ll give you the best plate of the house to serve food for you or the most unused pillow they have so you can sleep comfortably. They really know how to value people. They act out of kindness, respect, and sincerity.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned from farmers?

Well, you have to ask yourself, how can I learn from a farmer’s humanness? How can I give in return? How can I listen to them so I make sure I can help them the most?

In our AGREA formula, we always make sure farmers are at the center of change. They are our changemakers. We understand that if we are to expand our work, it starts and ends with farmers. So we always say to the farmers, if we help you, you have to help your neighbors too.

This is the formula we use. Farmers need to ask themselves, who are my neighbors, and is there anyone I can employ on my farm? This is how we grow our sense of community. We invest and tap into the kind of genuine generosity they already have. Farmers are so sincere.

I am someone who lives in two worlds. I’m here in my house in the middle of the central business district of Makati. Around here are companies that make billions. But I also get the chance to live in farms with the poorest of the poor. And the truth is, I always see a difference between going to the houses of people who are so rich and those who are so poor. In houses that are rich, there is always an element of showing off what they have. But when you go to farming communities, there is a genuine desire to say, this is the best we can give. They are always trying to offer what they have. To me, that is real humanity.

How can people apply this idea of humaneness to solve real problems and enact change?

If you spend your life traveling in helicopters, it is impossible to see the problem on the ground. You haven’t experienced traffic. You haven’t seen people starving on the street. You’re disconnected from the ground every single day. It’s this problem of disconnection that makes us inhumane as people. Through this process of disconnection, you forget that these things actually exist. You forget about starving people, you forget about poverty. It makes you feel like you’re working for money and success, and nothing else.

When you’re thinking about making change, you need to address the problem of connecting; of being grounded to your soil. People who do this are more humane in the process of impact. For example, if you work with farmers, you see the poverty in their newborn. You see their neighbors, and how they don’t have money to enroll their children in school. You see how everyone in a village will chip in with their meager income to be able to send one single child to university. If you really take time to value and see this, you will feel the need to be more humane in your solutions and your impact.

We have been able to create change over the past twenty years because farmers have taught me how to be humane as a person. They have taught me how to be a person. This is what they can teach us: how to be present in the impact we make.

TD & AA: This is the end of the first part of our interview with Cherrie. In part two, we will dive deeper into innovations in agriculture, how to enact systems-level change, and create tech that is effective and human-sensitive. Stay tuned and thank you for reading!

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Get Involved

We hope you get involved at a time where supporting dignified work is more important than ever. To learn more about AGREA’s impact and how to support them, please go to http://www.agreaph.com/

If you want to learn more about Humanity in Tech, follow us and get in touch! We are on a mission to define and empower Humane Leadership for the 21st century. Humanity in Tech is uncovering the leadership capabilities needed to safeguard human value and prioritize well-being in this technological age. Join our movement!

If you’d like to nominate a thought-leader to be interviewed for our series, please email Tania at tdesdias@gmail.com.

  • Who we are looking for? Thought-leaders on the cutting-edge of environmental sustainability, employment, biotech, education, transportation, finance, mental health, culture and the arts.
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Humanity in Tech

Powering humanity and human values in the age of tech

Humanity in Tech

Humanity in Tech (HiT) powers vital conversations on the future of technology and society. We explore what it means to be human in this digital age and equip people with the humane skills and values to shape their communities for good.

Tania Dias

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Humans in technology and not the other way round.

Humanity in Tech

Humanity in Tech (HiT) powers vital conversations on the future of technology and society. We explore what it means to be human in this digital age and equip people with the humane skills and values to shape their communities for good.