I Am Her: United Nations Awardee Louise Mabulo On Fighting Stigmas

A social champion

Our “I Am Her” series features the female movers and shakers of the industry to learn how femininity and power coincide beautifully and seamlessly together.

It's an understatement to say that Louise Mabulo is a woman of many accomplishments. At the tender age of 21, she has already been on the cover of Forbes Magazine, recognised by the United Nations as a Young Champions of the Earth awardee, and has founded a social enterprise that has helped countless families maintain a sustainable livelihood. No, she's not a billionaire, a politician, or a social media personality, she's a chef, a farmer, and an ordinary youngster with an extraordinary vision. 

Coming from the United Kingdom, Louise's family moved back to the Philippines and settled in the remote rural area of San Fernando, Camarines Sur — approximately 380 kilometres away from the country's capital city. In 2016, this agricultural town was hit by the powerful Super Typhoon Nock Ten on Christmas Day. Crops were destroyed and the farmers were left with little to no income. But Louise noticed something: the cacao plants were still standing. This gave her the idea to transform the locale's farming by cultivating the resilient and high-value cacao plant along with other short-term crops. Today, The Cacao Project has revived water sources, combated deforestation due to typhoons, and provided a sustainable livelihood for the community.

Get to know more about this amazing young woman who is paving the way to a brighter future. In this interview, she revealed how she built The Cacao Project, the stigmas she had to face, her favourite comfort food, and more.

Fill in the blank: I’m a chef, an environmental advocate and ____________.

A lifestyle farmer. Part of my goal in life is to reform and dignify the image of farming throughout the Philippines and beyond.

You migrated to a rural area in the Philippines from the United Kingdom. How did you adjust to life in Camarines Sur?

When I first moved, it was kind of a culture shock. I grew up in this utopian place in the United Kingdom where my education was free [and] healthcare was free. A lot of things were convenient and here it wasn’t quite the same. So it was a matter of adjusting and falling in love with my own culture. My most favourite thing about San Fernando is that you can witness the preserved state of nature. There are always birds chirping, and I really enjoy the greenery and the scenery and how lush it is outside.

When did your fascination for culinary arts start?

My earliest memory of cooking was when I was five years old. I would pick berries from our backyard and bake blueberry muffins using an oven-microwave that my parents bought me. I had this consciousness that I always loved to do that. And as I grew up, my grandmother who is Kapampangan (a native of Pampanga, a province in the Philippines known for culinary) and my uncle who is a chef, enjoyed dragging me into the kitchen and cooking with me. My childhood memory of the whole family revolving around the kitchen, cooking up meals together is so intense. So it began there and eventually developed into my professional culinary career.

At 12, you were one of Junior MasterChef Pinoy Edition’s finalists. What was it like being in a reality cooking show? What were your biggest takeaways from the experience?

I came to the show with a mindset that this was a cooking competition. I never thought much about how it was a television show, that millions of people would be watching me. Overall, it was a wonderful experience. It taught me how to handle pressure, be disciplined, handle stress, be able to take criticism and grow from it. That was an essential time in my life because those were skills and things I needed to learn that I brought with me into adulthood. 

It also taught me to deal with failure. Like in life, in the show, you have to stretch your creativity and you’re not always rewarded for it. During these difficult times, I would ask myself, is it worth it? And the answer is always yes. I learned how to keep my cool in those situations and focus on the definitive end product. So it really shaped a lot of who I am and it’s times I will never forget because it’s some of my happiest and fondest memories but it’s also some of the most stressful times of my younger years.

Tell us more about how you built The Cacao Project.

It all started when San Fernando was devastated by Typhoon Nock Ten, and a few days after I decided that we needed to do something for my community. We're hit by typhoons every single year, and farmers lose a large part of their crops and income streams. It was so unsustainable for them to keep living this way. We are resilient people but our problem is that we don’t change the way that we’ve done things so we can address these climate concerns.

So I decided to help farmers to establish their livelihood; that’s how Cacao Project started. It began as a typhoon relief initiative but as it was going along, I realised that it can't be a one-off project. It's not something I can start and leave. It has to continue for several years to establish a sustainable and long-term livelihood that will be resilient to the climate, and that's when I turned it into a venture. 

At first, everyone was sceptical. In our province, it’s easy to meet other farmers because it’s a small town and everyone knows each other but the hard part was getting them onboard with the idea. They saw this girl who grew up before their very eyes and thought, 'What does she know about this, why would I follow that, it’s not exactly a great idea. I’ve been doing this forever and my parents and my grandparents are doing this for years, why would I change it now?'.

So I started with this small group of farmers who understood what I was trying to do and when other farmers saw that it was working and was becoming really effective, that’s when a lot of the farmers were eventually convinced. You really have to lead by example so I started this model farm, I only put it up so I can show people and they would be able to see it for themselves because people need a visual cue. 

You were listed as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 this year. How did you feel about being on the list?

It’s an honour and a milestone not just for me but for all farmers in the country. I never thought I'd be a featured honoree and be on the cover, it’s mindblowing. It’s beyond my own dreams. I used to only see billionaires (on magazine covers), and wow, there I am. But it’s not just for me, the goal is to represent farmers in the Philippines and, to an extent, in Asia. The issues in farming, climate change and social entrepreneurship are they're not just limited to us, they pervade all throughout Asia. So it’s a huge leap for the entire industry.

What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome?

I always had to fight different stigmas in each industry that I’m a part of, whether it’s in culinary, agriculture, or social entrepreneurship. I'm young and also a girl. So it was so difficult, because of all these factors, to be taken seriously.

It took me years to establish credibility especially when I was younger because no one thought I was serious about what I said or what I did. Now, it’s so wonderful to have all these things on my belt to back me up together with research and the people that understand what I’m working on. But growing up, it was difficult to get people's attention and be taken seriously. But we must keep on persevering to accomplish what we want to do regardless of the image and stereotype people have of us as women.

What is your favourite comfort food to eat when you're stressed and need a pick-me-up?

This is such a hard question because I eat so much. Haha! But I guess my staples are Binagoongang Baboy (Pork in Shrimp Paste) and Sinampalukang Manok (Chicken Soup in Tamarind Broth). It’s always homely Filipino food that I go back to, really. Especially if I’ve done a lot of fancy gourmet dishes, I’ll go home and whip up those simple, delicious dishes.

If you were a dish, what would you be and why?

I would be an Adobo. Because it’s versatile, flexible and you can use it to make other dishes if you have leftovers. It’s great on its own but you can pair it with many things — cook it with mushrooms, put it in a sandwich, make Afritada (Chicken Braised in Tomato Sauce); it can be an entirely new dish. It can be a fancy international dish but can also be a simple, down-to-earth local dish. Each ingredient used to make this dish also tells a story that’s evolving through the years so it’s very similar to me.

What’s next for you?

Honestly, I can’t tell you a definitive answer. I put my faith in the hands of God. Especially now that we live in an uncertain time and it’s near impossible to plan or anticipate what’s next in times of crisis like this. In these lockdowns, I’m focusing on improving myself, my farms, prepare how we’ll tackle the world in the new normal after everything. I’ll say we’re stocking our arsenal for the world that lies await after lockdown lifts.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

(Cover photo from: @louisedgmabulo)

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