MANILA, Philippines -- Our beaches are a lure, but these students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?s Sloan School of Management were enticed to come for an entirely different reason -- the lowly backyard malunggay.
Malunggay (scientific name: Moringa oleifera) is a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree with leaves that can, among other things, increase lactation in nursing mothers and address the problem of malnutrition.
It has actually been dubbed ?the most nutritious plant in the world,? and is also an obligatory ingredient in chicken tinola (soup).
But that?s not what Jose Torbay, 26, of Venezuela; David Salamon, 22, of France; Alex Rall, 28, of Germany, and Jesus Benavides, 29, of Mexico, are here for either.
The MIT Sloan students, who are each due to complete a master?s degree in Business Administration in June, are in the Philippines to study the international market outlook on the production of Moringa oil from malunggay seeds as a possible biofuel source.
Since their arrival in the Philippines on Jan. 10, they have been speaking with farmers in Pangasinan, Camarines Sur, Western Samar and a few other provinces. They are scheduled to return to the United States on Feb. 2.
The four students? research on Moringa oil as a business opportunity started last September at MIT.
They found a study by scientists in India expounding on Moringa oil?s properties?an iodine number better than that of regular diesel, indicating fuel stability; a cetane number indicating good ignition behavior, and a cold filter plugging point indicating suitability even in winter.
According to Salamon, the group?s spokesperson, the Philippines has distinct advantages over other countries for the mass production of Moringa oil.
He cited its geographical proximity to large markets (such as Japan, Korea, India, China and the US West Coast), the availability of labor, and large tracts of idle farmland (5 million hectares, per the Department of Agriculture).
And unlike jatropha?another plant being developed for biofuel production?Moringa will not produce toxic byproducts, Salamon said.
He said its residue could even be used to feed livestock, or help in fighting malnutrition.
At present, the Philippines does not have substantial malunggay plantations, Salamon observed. ?But we hope that as this [situation] changes, the world will come to know the Philippines in this regard,? he said.
The students have presented their study to the Department of Agriculture (DA).
The Inquirer came to know of their activity through a Jan. 17 e-mail from the Biolife News Service, a DA-funded advocacy group for biotechnology.
MIT Sloan confirmed that indeed, there were MBA students in the Philippines completing their Global Entrepreneurship Laboratory (G-lab) requirements.
G-Lab is a course that enables teams of management, engineering and science students at MIT to work closely with the top management of international startup companies in solving real-world problems.
G-lab is helping students ?shed the belief that the United States is the center of the world economy,? MIT Prof. Richard Locke said in a statement. ?They learn through hands-on experience that business models need to be re-adapted from the classroom into the actual country and culture of the company site.?
?In the end, most students are informed by their experience, to the extent that it may directly influence the direction of their careers,? Locke said.
(After completing their studies in the Philippines and acquiring their MBA degrees at MIT Sloan, Benavides will take a job at Cemex as a manager, Rall and Torbay will become associate consultants at McKinsey & Co. in California, and Salamon will be a product manager at Microsoft.)
As it turned out, Salamon and his colleagues were linked up with the Filipino biotech company Secura International Corp., which reportedly pioneered the extraction of pure oil from malunggay seeds.
The suitability of Secura?s own Moringa oil for use as biofuel is being tested in the United States. The results will be known within weeks, Salamon said.
He said the first large Moringa plantation in the Philippines would most likely be set up in Calbayog, Western Samar, as a result of a Jan. 22 memorandum of agreement between engineer Danilo Manayaga, Secura president and CEO, and Calbayog Mayor Mel Senen S. Sarmiento.
Manayaga said the MIT Sloan students were heartened by the eagerness of Filipino farmers to start in the malunggay business.
?They [students] were really fascinated by the scenery we passed on our trips, and were moved by the overwhelming acceptance of this project,? he told the Inquirer.
In an e-mail, the four students said 14 varieties of malunggay had spread around the world from their original habitat in the Himalayas.
But Moringa oil is not widely available anywhere at this time, Salamon said.
And while malunggay plantations can be found in India and some African countries, there are as yet no large-scale plans for extracting the oil because the leaves and green pods are eaten there, he said.
The students said the Philippines was the only country they knew of with ?large-scale plans? of producing Moringa oil from malunggay seeds.
They also said ricelands would not be suitable for malunggay plantations, ?so Moringa would not interfere with the food chain from this point of view.?
The students estimated a potential overseas demand for Moringa oil reaching ?several billion liters per year over the next few years, depending on what industry we are looking at.?
Salamon said his group based this estimate on industry research as well as conversations with potential clients.
(No copy of the group?s study was provided. Patricia Favreau of MIT Sloan?s Office of Media Relations said the final paper with recommendations might take longer to put together.)
The prospect of developing billions of liters of biofuel for the world?s consumption has not always been viewed favorably, or optimistically.
Jean Ziegler, the United Nations? special rapporteur on the right to food, said biofuel could have a catastrophic impact on world hunger.
He called the conversion of food crops into biofuel ?a crime against humanity,? saying it would lead to food shortages and price jumps that would push millions of impoverished people to starvation.
But according to Salamon, extracting oil from malunggay seeds for the world market is a project that strongly aligns national, social and business interests.
And this makes the project all the more fulfilling for them: ?In our future careers, we will remember this as an example where public and private sector interests can coincide and work together.?
Per the Biolife News Service release, the MIT Sloan students said that with a 10-ha malunggay farm, a farmer could earn P2 million during the first year, P3 million in the next three years, and P4 million in the next four years. In addition, the meal, or sapal, of malunggay seeds may be used as livestock feed.
(The revenue computations were based on the business proposal offered by Secura and the estimated yields of malunggay seeds per hectare of land.)
Comparatively, a farmer could earn P1,440,000 a year planting corn, or P814,000 a year planting coconuts.
In the oil extraction plants that will be set up alongside the malunggay plantations, the labor force per manufacturing plant is estimated at 100 employees. By 2010, around 3,000 men and women would be employed in an estimated 30 manufacturing sites.
But here?s a whopper: The students said an extraction facility that would pass European and US standards would cost at least P250 million.
Salamon recalled how malunggay?s nutritive properties began to be known in 1999, when it was used in Africa to fight malnutrition.
He said its nutritive properties, such as beta carotene, and the presence of antioxidants such as alpha-tocopherol made it suitable for the production of high-end health products.
He added that malunggay could also be used as an active ingredient in beauty products such as emollients.