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SOCIAL BUSINESS SUMMIT 2013: From eco-warrior to eco-entrepreneur

International interns with community members outside the Hyundai Center for Green Innovation, with one of the 3,000 bamboo trees (to the right) planted in partnership with DENR.

MANILA, Philippines -A long-awaited report published by the United Nations on Friday asserts that climate change is “dangerous and unprecedented,” with global temperatures now expected to rise above 2 degrees, previously considered “a tipping point” after which habitable life could become unviable.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has warned that “the heat is on. We must act,” before inviting global leaders to a special summit next year to forge a global agreement on emissions.

For many, like Jerick Limoanco, this news comes as no surprise: “Throughout history, the environment has always demonstrated to us that it is boss. It has wiped out entire civilizations. And yet, we continue to act as if it doesn’t really matter.”

Sitting on his newly designed bench made of bamboo and recycled tires, and talking passionately about the “up-cycling” industry, it becomes quite evident that Jerick is not one of those who don’t care.

He also feels that we all have a role to play in effecting change, not just the world’s political elite: “The reality, of course, is that unless environmental projects make not only ethical but also business sense, it may well be that we end up reacting once it is too late.”

Instead of joining an anti-climate change demonstration or Internet protest group, Jerick has decided that his path is to back up strong ethical convictions with concrete actions.

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In the belief that ventures that conserve the environment also offer considerable business opportunities, he has become a social entrepreneur for the environment. He believes that he can take one of the by-products of our throwaway economy – waste – and turn it to his advantage.

His enterprise, Class from Trash, aims to grow the “up-cycled” furniture industry in the Philippines – which entails not simply recycling apparent trash, but turning it into desirable and marketable chairs, tables and other furniture goods.

All it takes to go from “urban trash” to “urban chic,” Jerick tells me, is a little creativity and a commitment to harness the talents of the poor: “If entrepreneurs can recognize these raw carpentry skills and connect them to other skills, such as good design, then you really can create popular products and viable businesses.”

Save the environment, save the poor; save the poor, save the environment

I am interviewing Jerick at the Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan. Just a few years ago, this very site was being quarried, “which is one of the deadliest things you can possibly do to the land, since it destroys the topsoil and completely kills the local habitat,” he tells me. Perhaps a quarry provides an apt example of man’s tendency to place business before ecological concerns.

With a complete collection of orchids, herbs, spices and ornamentals, the abundance of fireflies, dragonflies, and butterflies which freely roam around the farm suggest that the area has become a thriving eco-system for Mother Nature once more.

Indeed, the vision of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Ramon Paje to build the biggest botanical garden in the country at the Enchanted Farm will introduce urban dwellers and the next generation of Filipinos to vast career and business opportunities in the countryside that create prosperity for the poor while protecting nature. In addition, the Farm will act as a one-stop shop for DENR’s alternative energy and waste management programs.

Indeed, the Enchanted Farm is currently swarming not only with natural life, but also with social entrepreneurs. For some of them, their prime passion is to build businesses in partnership with the poor, while others, such as Jerick, are primarily drawn to establishing an environmentally friendly enterprise. More often than not, both movements end up discovering that these two objectives are mutually compatible.

Another young change-maker at the Farm is Cherrie Atilano. She was commended as one of the Ten Most Outstanding Students of the Philippines in 2007, but she turned down a scholarship opportunity to study in the US to become the co-founder and social entrepreneur of Agricool.

In collaboration with the Department of Agrarian Reform, Cherrie helps the Enchanted Farm reach out to 3,000 agrarian reform beneficiaries in order to provide them with agricultural training and techniques which address food security, environmental sustainability and livelihood in one swoop.

“In the past, training on certain issues, especially sustainability, was either too expensive or intimidating for farmers. We need to spread the word about simple farming techniques and technologies which ensure that we work with nature, instead of against it,” she said.

Small-scale farmers, used to living hand-to-mouth, need to see immediate, short-term benefits in environmentally friendly farming methods if this training is to be effective.

Cherrie explains: “We need to show the farmers that we can make use of everything, including the waste. For example, the waste of organic chickens and pigs at the farm to be used as fertilizer for plants and vegetables. This reduces the expense for farmers of chemical fertilizers and closes the loop that sustains both agriculture and the environment.”

Ultimately, the real impetus for change may lie with the entrepreneur himself, who needs to see the business viability of creating environmentally friendly enterprises. With a number of agro-enterprises currently being incubated at the farm, social entrepreneurs are finding sustainable ways to secure their supply chain.

The beauty of bamboo

Bamboo is another agricultural resource which offers not only enormous business potential, but also ecological sustainability, and as a result 3,000 bamboo trees have been planted at the Farm.

“Once you plant it, you can keep cutting it every three years and, rather than it becoming depleted, it will simply grow back even stronger. Apart from sustainability, bamboo also captures more carbon than regular trees,” he said.

Two structures have been erected at the farm to showcase the true potential of bamboo. One is the Bamboo Palace, financed by GK USA chairman and successful Philam entrepreneur Tony Olaes. This stunning structure provides a venue for major events and showcases some of the very best Filipino expertise in carpentry and design.

Another is the Center for Green Innovation, a training center to learn best environmental practices, built by Hyundai Asia Resources Inc. (HARI). Its president and CEO Fe Perez-Agudo explains that the best way to truly build a greener future is to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in the young, so the likes of Jerick and Cherrie are no longer forced to operate on the margins of the mainstream economy.

“We want the Hyundai Center to become the epicenter for social and ecological innovation, where people will converge and showcase not only their talents and ideas but their end products as well,” said Agudo. “We want to attract the rest of the young generation to come and see for themselves that, if they apply their talents, the Philippines will become a greener and more productive place to live in.”

Thanks to such world-class facilities, the farm has become a source of learning not only for local communities, but is also attracting exceptional international talent.

Two recent organizations to visit the farm are the University of California, San Diego – which has already designed a solar lamppost at the farm – and Schneider Electric, a multinational energy firm which has recently signed a partnership agreement with the farm aimed at increasing environmentally sustainable access to electricity for rural communities.

The Social Business Summit, beginning on Wednesday, is likely to lead to further partnerships.

“Soon enough, we can reach a tipping point,” says Jerick.

At first, I presume he is referring once more to the 2-degree threshold alluded to in the latest UN report. However, the power of solidarity has persuaded Jerick to be far more optimistic than that.

“We shouldn’t feel that we need to do everything alone. By coming to the farm, perhaps we can see what is translatable to our own environment and then do it. If many of us work together to enact small changes, we can achieve such a huge difference,” he said.

As for the really hard work, perhaps nature itself can take care of that.

Cherrie, Jerick and other young change-makers will join DAR, DENR and private sector organizations like Hyundai at the Social Business Summit on Oct. 2-5 at the Enchanted Farm. For more information, visit the website www.socialbusinesssummit.net.

***

The author is a British journalist who came to the Philippines on a short-term assignment. He has since stayed 20 months in the country, volunteering for Gawad Kalinga and other causes. His experiences will be documented in a book “The Genius of the Poor.”

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