By Danny O. Calleja
The seagrass, locally called “ragiwriw,” previously a farm nuisance, is now a money-maker for some enterprising Bicolano handicraft makers.
Seagrass (Rynchospora corymbosa) is a wild plant that persistently grows abundantly in the wetlands of the Bicol River Basin (BRB). It has triangular coarse-edged broad leaves measuring about one meter long. The entire plant possesses toxic elements that are lethal to both plants and animals, thus treated in the past as farm pest.
The Department of Agriculture (DA) regional office here had estimated that at least 242,000 metric tons of palay were lost per year to seagrass infestation in over 2,000 hectares of rice fields within the BRB.
That was until last year as intensive researches jointly initiated by the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (Philrice) found ways to reverse ragiwriw’s role from being farmers’ pain in the neck to an economic blessing were established.
Found out to be a potential material for handicraft that can even outweigh the durability and cost of the famous abaca pulp and fiber, Philrice and the DA’s Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR) came up early this year with programs called the Integrated Crop-Aquaculture-Livestock Farming System Modules and Village-Level Agri-Enterprise (VAE) respectively.
Both programs introduced to local farm households an opportunity to make money out of ragiwriw with the Philrice providing the technology and BAR, the funding for the acquisition of handicraft production tools and establishment of processing facilities for the initial of 40 households in San Fernando, Camarines Sur.
And so, the ragiwriw hand-made footwear came to being. Its classic designs of slippers, sandals and slip-ons are now making a big hit in the local market and slowly capturing the Japanese market through hand-carried balikabayan shipments of Filipino settlers and workers in that country.
Balikbayan-oriented specialty stores in key Bicol cities like Legazpi in Albay and Naga in Camarines Sur as well as in Metro Manila have been realizing good sales since its introduction initiated by the DA-BAR Technology Commercialization Center early this year.
Emily Noora, one of the footwear makers in San Fernando town, boasts of the durability of her daintily-designed ragiwriw sandals that offer therapeutic trait with its massage-giving value for the sole that could ease off rheumatism.
With this initial success, production expansions have been put in place with the local government of San Fernando, Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Camarines Sur provincial and the Product Development and Design Center of the Philippines (PDDCP) pouring in technical assistances in skills training, product development and marketing.
The Philrice had also funded the purchase of additional units of sewing machines for an increase production while the DTI facilitated the putting up of a One-Stop-shop Display Center in Manila to help in the promotion and marketing of the product.
Likewise, the Philippine Army (PA) has entered this development scene by way of providing manpower and technical support from its 565 Engineering Brigade to the recent construction of a new production building in San Fernando town. It also provided marketing linkages with the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Officers Ladies Group based at its headquarters in Manila.
To organize the newly found industry, the DA regional office based here on the other hand clustered all the sectors involved in the production. The raw material suppliers have been clustered in three barangays, the weavers in five barangays and the assembler-sewer-finisher are now housed in the production building in Barangay Del Pilar.
The BAR is further identifying areas for optimized seagrass-based agribusiness development focused on technology enhancement with approaches based on community needs.
“This village-based enterprises will soon be expanded to municipal level to involve all other ragiwriw producing towns within the BRB,” Emmanuel Oroyo, the head of the DA’s Regional Field Unit’s bicol Integrated Agricultural Research Center said here on Friday.
He said the transition of ragiwriw from a pest to highly marketable finished products like footwear happened so fast, Oroyo said citing that in the past until late last year, farmers hated it very much. Now the shortage of its supply is slowly being felt due to escalating demands from barangay-based crafters.
Its economic significance is also impressive considering that ragiwriw plants covering a 3,200 square meter farm could already fetch a net income of more than P250,000 for its owner today, he said.