Poor man’s rich man
(The Philippine Star) - March 8, 2015 - 12:00am

It looks like fish. It smells like fish. When unsold and unmarketable, it usually rots and goes to waste.  But not so in the fisherfolk community in Iligan, where excess catch of fish in season are collected for livelihood. It’s like chicken dung gathered by another community in Naawan, Misamis Oriental, and coconut husks collected from copra farms by a cooperative of former rebels who laid down their arms for life with society. Rotten fish, chicken dung, coconut husks – all biowastes that can be converted to organic fertilizers that communities can sell and make a living out of. For them, it is a way to resist poverty through their own productive work. But this is just half of the story.

Someone helped these communities organize to gather lowly raw materials from their own vicinities. Someone supplies the secret ingredient and process to make fertilizers; someone teaches them how to manufacture. Finally, someone helps them sell their produce. Most of the proceeds stay with these folks and a part they remit to their technology provider, trainer, marketer and business partner. That “someone” is a social entrepreneur named Nanette and her enterprise is called Ecosystems Work for Essential Benefits, Inc. (ECOWEB). Before she empowered communities, she used her education as an agriculture engineer to formulate an inoculant to produce organic fertilizers and pest repellants.

I am reminded of the phrase born out of weariness: “so much work for so little.” Social entrepreneurs give this phrase a proud new meaning. They work so hard, invest so much of their resources and themselves, and recover little margin. The real prize for these breed of entrepreneurs is the fulfillment that comes from helping people attain better lives in a disadvantaged society.

The other day, ECOWEB and 25 other social entrepreneurs were recognized in the first Developmental Social Enterprise Awards (DSEA) in the country. The DSEA (www.dseawards.com), presented by Isla Lipana & Co./PwC Philippines and the Benita & Catalino Yap Foundation, and supported by Sen. Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino (he himself has roots as a social entrepreneur), is meant to build awareness, and strengthen the industry of helping others.

Call it cliché, but for me, these brilliant and compassionate individuals who use business skills to solve social problems are among our group of modern-day heroes. They achieve on a daily basis what economic progress in the country has not delivered so far. Social enterprise is inclusive growth in action.

Take the case of Coffee for Peace in Davao. After living in Canada for 20 years, Jojie, her husband and son moved back to the Philippines. They could have stayed in Manila a luxury they could easily afford. But they decided to be peace advocates in Davao, even climbing Mount Apo to reach the communities there, using coffee as the medium for dialogue and industry. She encouraged communities who live on higher elevation to plant forest trees together with Arabica coffee. This makes the forest and watershed sustainable and protected. Rebels to coffee farmers. Conflict to joint development. For Jojie, a scalable business and tons of psychic income.

Not all farm produce grow on soil. In Northern Samar, seaweed farming in salt water is taught to local fisherfolk in coastal towns through a community-based enterprise program initiated by the Sentro ha Pagpauswag ha Panginabuhi, Inc. (SPPI). SPPI or Center for Local Economy Development is a non-stock, non-profit organization that serves communities in Samar through its Local Economy Development Program (LEDP). The “fisher-farmer” can harvest seaweeds after about eight weeks. This viably augments the income of the fisherman who still relies on the sea, but for a different product.

In Metro Manila, Bistro 3846 provides scholarship grants to poor but deserving students using proceeds from running a cafeteria that serves age-appropriate nutritious meals.

The remarkable Medical Mission Group is a cooperative hospital. The dismal access to quality health facilities brought about the idea of forming a cooperative owned and operated by doctors, nurses, and the community. Even a tricycle driver can be a member of the cooperative and have access to affordable consultation and hospitalization.

The Old Balara Christian Community School, which started as a Bible study group, provides formal education to the urban poor of their community. They collect meager tuition payments from some students who can pay, and use the same money to enroll other students for free as they cannot even afford public schools. To date, half of their student population are scholars.

There are many more, all worthy of mention and emulation. The vast majority of us can commit to corporate social responsibility (CSR) work, but it will take so much more to muster the courage to go into business to solve a social problem.

There are things we can readily do. We can buy their products and help achieve inclusive growth that way. We can support legislation to cover social enterprises under a separate tax regime, so they can receive indirect subsidy from the government that way. We can help them establish the business connections they need to make their businesses scale up. And almost immediately, we can thank them for reminding us that there are genuinely skillful and kind people who do extraordinary things for others without a personal agenda, and without a noisy entourage. To them go our highest admiration.

In parting this Sunday, I’d like to make a spin-off of my earlier phrase and ask why he who has so much gives so little. The answer may partly be in a popular anonymous quote that says “a rich man is not he who has the most. but he who needs the least”.

* * *

Alexander B. Cabrera is the chairman and senior partner of Isla Lipana & Co./PwC Philippines. He also chairs the tax committee of the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP). Email your comments and questions to aseasyasABC@ph.pwc.com. This content is for general information purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors.

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