By Makiko Ohori
MANILA, NNA – Longtime Japanese businessman Takeyoshi Sumikawa has tried more than once to promote buckwheat or soba cultivation in the Philippines in devoting his post-retirement life to the Southeast Asian country.
Now 76, Sumikawa will take another crack at soba production, this time in once strife-torn Marawi on Mindanao Island, to create jobs and bring about lasting peace.
“I had no connections or acquaintances in Mindanao,” he said in a recent interview with NNA.
A native of Nara Prefecture, he now serves as vice president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Mindanao and also chairs DatuPaglas Japan, which supports the local expansion of Japanese companies in the Philippines.
After graduating from the University of Tokyo, Sumikawa joined Takasago Thermal Engineering Co. before switching to general contractor Obayashi Corp. and engaged in the design and construction of research and manufacturing plants for semiconductors and silicon wafers.
Sumikawa first visited the Philippines in 2006, when he came to grow sunflowers as a raw material for biodiesel production for a venture backed by the University of Tsukuba. He managed to secure farmland and oil mills in Mindanao in cooperation with Central Luzon State University, but the project was shelved.
Yoichi Amano, then vice president of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Mindanao, came to his rescue, saying, “Let’s start a new company!”
In 2007, Sumikawa and Amano started growing soba to export to Japan under a deal with Nissey Delica Corp., a Tokyo-based maker of noodles and other food products for convenience stores and restaurants. But the pair struggled with poor soil drainage and insect damage for four years.
During the intervening period, Sumikawa, through his banana fiber business connections, came to know the municipality of Amai Manabilang in Lanao del Sur Province in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Located 1,200 meters above sea level, the region is cool throughout the year and suitable for growing soba for soba noodles, an immensely popular dish in Japan, prompting him to relaunch the soba project.
By 2017, annual soba production had totaled 100 tons and the first soba noodles from the Philippines eventually made their debut at convenience stores in Japan.
“Soba can be harvested three times a year, providing stable revenue,” Sumikawa explained. He hired former soldiers from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as farm hands.
But Nissey Delica subsequently opted out of the deal, forcing Sumikawa to abandon the soba project once again in January this year.
Despite such unsuccessful attempts at soba harvests for the Japanese market, Sumikawa remains upbeat.
He recently launched research on possible soba cultivation in Marawi, the scene of a 2017 siege by pro-Islamic State fighters, in response to a proposal from the Department of Trade and Industry’s Board of Investment.
“We have talked with Defense Secretary (Delfin) Lorenzana. And there emerged the possibility of a soba plantation on military-managed land on a trial basis,” he added.
Sumikawa has a reason to continue his soba quest, recalling his dialogue with Ghazali Jaafar, vice chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, during their trip together in Lanao del Sur Province three years ago. Jaafar had expressed hope at the time that job creation would lead to peace.
Jaafar helped draft the Bangsamoro Organic Law for the creation of an autonomous Bangsamoro region in 2018. He passed away in March this year.
Now that the law has been implemented, Sumikawa said, “We have to support disarmed soldiers.”