(The Philippine Star) | Updated September 21, 2014 – 12:00am
T’boli, South Cotabato, Philippines – Caretaker and vegetable farmer Johnny Tolentino never considered himself an expert in agriculture.

Thus Manong Dyoni, as he is fondly called, was in disbelief when the local government informed him that he was chosen to be the municipal agricultural technician.  Manong Dyoni’s family became a beneficiary of the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program implemented by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

They were given seed capital assistance through the DSWD’s Sustainable Livelihood Program (SLP) which they used to start a vegetable enterprise. Mang Dyoni’s family is one of the 9,210 Pantawid Pamilya beneficiaries from Central Mindanao who received seed capital assistance from the DSWD as of June 2014.

The program began in January 2011. Nationwide, there are 4,090,667 beneficiaries of Pantawid Pamilya as of June 25.

From backyard gardening to bell pepper business

The couple used to tend a simple garden in the backyard of their neighbor, the Tanco family. They grew okra, string beans, and sweet potatoes in the small parcel of land.

Since 2005, the small garden had been the family’s main source of income, but it was not sufficient for their growing family.

In 2011, Mang Dyoni became a recipient of a P10,000 seed capital assistance from DSWD’s SLP.

The couple decided to venture into a vegetable gardening enterprise.

Manong Dyoni started sowing bell pepper crops on a half-hectare land they rented even before they received the capital assistance.

When the seed capital was released, the bell pepper plants already had small fruits and fully-grown leaves.

Mang Dyoni got a big relief when Tanco, who is also the municipal officer, contributed money for the venture. With the money at hand, he purchased fertilizers for his plants.

Soon, the plants grew and bore fruits. The family was able to harvest their crops.

Manong Dyoni could not believe the big gain he earned.

His wife, Annalee, started imagining having their own house and sending their three healthy kids to school.

“Ngayon, kami ay mga simpleng magtatanim lamang, pero balang araw ay makaka-angat din ang aming buhay (We are simple tenants and caretakers today, but soon we can move up to a better economic condition),” she said.

In 2012, they were finally able to expand the enterprise and eventually purchased a truck to transport their harvest to the market.

Humble beginnings

Before receiving the livelihood assistance from DSWD, Manong Dyoni could not afford to buy household appliances. Furthermore, the couple had to entrust their eldest daughter to Annalee’s parents so that she would be able to attend school.

They would endure the 23-kilometer walk on rough roads to visit their daughter because they could not afford the P20- fare to Surallah, the town where Annalee’s parents live.

Manong Dyoni still recalls the times when he would silently cry while walking to his daughter.

Persevering amid adversity

The couple also had their share of difficulties with their bell pepper business.

On some occasions, they experienced having to spray detergent soaps on their crops using a bamboo stem because they could not afford to buy insecticide.

There were even times when the bell peppers were washed out by floods and typhoons.

During such times, Manong Dyoni’s paningkamot (hard work) and optimism were his weapons in overcoming those difficulties.

Reaping the fruits of their labor

At present, the family’s income depends on the vegetable harvest.

Manong Dyoni has devoted much of his time to the vegetable garden. He spends the entire day tending the crops and only goes home to take his meals.

Their bell pepper harvest in the half-hectare land can earn as much as P300,000 in six months. Their income is then reinvested back into the business for expansion.

Today, the couple can proudly send their children to school because of their bell paper business. In addition to that, they have finally been able to buy household appliances which have made their lives easier and more enjoyable.

The Tolentinos plan to buy their own land to expand their enterprise.

Manong Dyoni is also considering growing coffee.

With a heightened interest in agriculture and support from the government and their neighbors, his family is a step closer to the life they imagined.

“Sa anumang pagsubok, kaya natin ito. Kaya natin ang pagbabago (In every challenge, we are sure to prevail as long as we are determined to change),” Mang Dyoni concluded. (The Philippine Star)