When twenty-year-old Louise Mabulo and her family geared up to celebrate Christmas Eve in 2016, little did they know of the devastation about to hit.
In the early hours, the Philippines was rocked by Typhoon Nock-ten, the strongest Christmas Day tropical cyclone worldwide. It left 11,000 people stranded without electricity or food supplies and killed 11 more.
Some parts of the country were declared a state of imminent danger or disaster. Crops lay strewn across the landscape, with 80 per cent of agricultural land destroyed. Farmers lost their livelihoods and income.
“We knew the storm was coming about a week before it hit,” recalls Mabulo. “But we had no idea how powerful it would be, or that its impact would be so devastating and last so long. We are in a typhoon belt, but this was nothing like we had experienced before.”
“It was around 3 a.m. when the worst of the storm hit and we just prayed. The next day when I went outside, everything was decimated. Farmers had lost whole harvests. It felt hopeless at the time, like a giant hand had stroked over all the rice laying down flat, with coconut trees cut in half.
Without electricity of fresh food, the community rallied around to help each other. A reality TV chef since the age of 12, Mabulo started looking for seeds to grow much-needed food supplies.
“We have a culture that after disaster strikes, we stick together and help each other and work together. We were on the streets helping each other, moving from house to house trying to rebuild and clean up the damage.
“I managed to get onto social media to create a plea for help. People tried to send money and funds to help during the recovery phase, but there were no stores or shops where we could buy food, and roads were blocked so we couldn’t travel.
“The only option was to grow our own, so I asked for seedlings to rebuild the farms. At first, I asked for vegetable seeds, so we could grow and have food immediately.
“But then, as we started providing for the community, I reflected that this is not a one-off occurrence. With the onset of climate change and potentially more powerful storms in future, more disaster-resilient crops are needed.
“It struck me that cocoa trees were still standing. They didn’t seem to be affected by the storm. I realized that cocoa is an ideal climate-resilient crop because it is fully grown in five years and ripe for harvesting in two or three.
On top of that, as a chef, Mabulo already knew that cocoa has high income-earning potential, which is vital for farmers who struggle to find markets for short-term crops, especially when there is a glut of them on the market.
And over time, she had noticed a curious paradox. Although kitchens would often run out of ingredients easily, or fruit and vegetable supplies would slowly disappear, at the same time, farmers were undervalued.
“Farming was associated with poverty, yet farmers are the custodians of our food supply. They are key in maintaining a balance in our ecosystem, restoring critical biodiversity and providing us with nutritious foods.
Now, Mabulo is dedicated to fighting that stigma. Her Cacao Project has trained over 200 farmers in agroforestry techniques, planting more than 70,000 trees across 70 hectares of land. In future, they aim to craft high-value chocolate.
She has also founded the Culinary Lounge—a laid-back farm-to-table kitchen studio. From bankers to farmers, the studio brings together people from all walks of life to enjoy food produced by the project, find out about where and how it is grown, and celebrate the work of farmers.
“I think you can tell stories through food; through ingredients,” explains Mabulo. The intricate flavours influenced by the spice trade for example tell the story of the Philippines. I have always adored cooking and the whole experience of tasting, smelling and making good food. It’s my passion.”
Soon, the first seeds donated to the Cocoa project in the aftermath of Typhoon Nock-ten will be ready to harvest. Then, the project will work with communities to test different ways of making chocolate and selling it, eventually also producing their own cocoa seeds.
“There will always be typhoons in future, and we are building long-term resilience in our environment,” she said. “In the meantime, our strength is in fostering respect with and for the community. That is something that can’t be destroyed.”
James Lomax, UN Environment Programme’s Sustainable Food Systems and Agriculture Programme Officer, said: “As climate change impacts intensify, food supplies are hit by extreme weather conditions.
“Ensuring that farmers can supply food to local communities and cities and at the same time earn a living, is a critical piece of the adaptation puzzle. Initiatives like these that focus on the importance of farmers and their ability to rebound from shocks set an excellent example for other entrepreneurs to follow and for governments to support.”
The Young Champions of the Earth Prize, powered by Covestro, is UN Environment Programme's leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges. Louise Mabulo is one of seven winners announced this year! Stay tuned to apply in January.