By Benjamin Sarondo
Bangus is a staple in Philippine cuisine, with its white flesh, sweet milky taste, and rich belly fat that, when cooked right, melts in the mouth. Popular ways of serving it include sinigang (stewed), dinaing (marinated), inihaw (grilled), fried, and relleno (stuffed). In this matter, bangus perfectly fits different occasions.
For Cecilia Natividad, a resident of Anda, Pangasinan, Mama Cili Bangus Sardines became her source of income after her retirement from a multinational company. Instead of being dependent on her monthly pension, she decided to come up with another source of income that is close to her heart, considering the availability of the resources.
It was an easy decision for Natividad to establish a business with milkfish since, in Pangasinan, her grandparents owned a pond where their family has raised milkfish ever since. But instead of selling it raw like a lot of aquafarmers do, Natividad thought of something unique and original.
Aerial view of the Mama Cili Bangus Sardines plantation with the milkfish pond. (Mama Cili Enterprises)
Natividad decided to bottle the milkfish instead of selling them raw. “There is already a sufficient supply of raw milkfish in the market, and the competition is already high. And this strategy can also prolong the shelf life of the milkfish, so it will not be a problem if it is not consumed immediately.”
“I am a kitchen person; I love to cook for my family, and I can do something with it.” Natividad said she spent most of her time in the kitchen and attended some cooking lessons before, so she is confident in her ability to create original recipes for bottled milkfish.
After getting approval of the taste and quality from her family, friends, and relatives, she sold her products to them. At first, it was only the people close to her who supported her products, but it became bigger and bigger through her market’s recommendations to other people.
All original offerings
With her desire to expand the business, she attended the Kapatid Mentor Me (KMME) Program by the Department of Trade and Industry in partnership with the Philippine Center for Entrepreneurship to learn and understand the different aspects of business, including management, sales, production, marketing, and many more.
As part of the KMME Program, she was given a chance to participate in a trade fair where she could promote her products and introduce them to large corporations. “During my first provincial level trade fair, I was lucky to secure a big account from a mall, and I am still supplying them with my products to sell,” Natividad said.
When she started her business, Natividad admitted that her goal was to grow and reach a lot of consumers with her products and to not just be limited to her family and friends as her customers. She said that attending training sessions and seminars made her realize that it was possible.
“I am grateful for the KMME Program; it helped me discover a lot of business partners and grow my market.” Natividad said that even though she had consistent customers and partnerships, she would still attend trade fairs, which would help her expand the business. She said it was her key to succeeding in the business.
Currently, Mama Cili Bangus Sardines offers six different flavors, which are milkfish in tomato sauce, milkfish with calamansi and olive oil, milkfish with fish sauce and olive oil, Spanish style milkfish in corn oil, spicy Spanish style milkfish in corn oil, Spanish style milkfish in olive oil, and spicy Spanish style milkfish in olive oil. All of these flavors were originally produced by Natividad and tried and tested by the market.
The actual content of Mama Cili products. (Cecilia Natividad)
Deboning struggles and challenges
Mama Cili also encountered challenges. Since the Philippines is greatly affected by typhoons, which may result in flooding, the water in their fish pond overflows, and they cannot secure the milkfish inside the pond due to a lack of barriers. Aside from typhoons, this also happens when the tide is high.
Natividad said it was a wise decision to bottle the milkfish instead of selling them raw. “During the pandemic, when all the stores are closed and people are not allowed to go outside, my business continues, and the profit continues to come as well. Even during the two years of lockdown, our products are accessible to the market.”
Bottling the milkfish extended the product’s shelf life to two years and helped her sustain the business during the pandemic.
Devouring improvements and successes
Natividad mentioned the importance of making improvements to a business for sustainability and to compete with other businesses. And one thing to improve is the connection with different entities.
Participating in trade fairs, like Natividad always does, is important because it will help broaden the connection between business owners. “Trade fairs are not just selling a particular product from a specific period of time; more than that, they are networking. We sell our products to individuals and corporations, and other businesses are selling their products to us, like cups and bottles; everyone is benefiting,” Natividad stated.
Their sales here in the local market are doing pretty well, Natividad said, but they still aspire to give the foreigners a taste of their fresh and high-quality products. Mama Cili Bangus Sardines wishes to be granted the right to export their goods abroad.
Natividad will be attending training from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to pass the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP). “It is very demanding. We have to meet high standards,” Natividad stated. But she has already prepared the requirements and is ready to attend the FDA series of training.
Cecilia Natividad, owner of Mama Cili Bangus Sardines, poses with the products. (Cecilia Natividad)
Their economic status is one of the reasons why she established her own business; she cannot rely only on her monthly pension. But before starting her business, what she most considered was her passion for what she would be doing. Her love for cooking is now her main source of income.
Photos courtesy of Cecilia Natividad