Social Business Summit through the gates of heaven
Thomas Graham (The Philippine Star) - August 11, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - ‘Indulge in the ‘Asian luxury’ and steer clear of the ‘Gates of Hell’”: owing to the articles and books I read before arriving in the Philippines, the priorities for my stay were thus very clear. The former would not be too difficult; since the country’s beautiful beaches and upmarket neighborhoods could provide plenty of the “good life” I was after. However, the latter – which I associated mainly with extreme poverty and the squalor which accompanies it – would prove far more challenging since it could be avoided but not entirely ignored. When friends asked me if I enjoyed the Philippines, my typical answer - “Yes, but…” – reflected my great pity for those less fortunate than myself.

One day, stepping out of my Makati City comfort zone, I realized that it also reflected my shallow understanding of and exposure to this country. So many foreigners who stay just a short time in the Philippines only get to see the country superficially – while the gem beneath the dirt and the traffic remains undiscovered.

My “tour guide” to the true Philippines has been Tony Meloto, the founder and chairman of Gawad Kalinga. He encouraged me to stay longer and discover the hidden treasures of the Philippines within its fertile land and talented people. Indulging in the “luxury” was unfulfilling while the horrors of “hell” never materialized. Instead, I found hope, energy and enterprise in the very places I least expected it.

The journey began at the Enchanted Farm in Bulacan, a community of former urban squatters and marginalized individuals, some of whom previously were gang leaders or rebels. Today, this community is a vibrant and productive rural community which offers a glimpse of the country’s true potential, as well as its charm.

I met a former ambulant vegetable vendor, Maricel Valderama, who has become a gourmet cheese entrepreneur. “A lot of the French people who try it are surprised that a simple woman like me can make such great cheese,” explains Ate Maricel who used to walk through the slums of her local community pleading with the residents to “Bili kayo!” (please buy!) Just a few years ago, this mother of four barely knew where her next meal would come from. Today she produces artisan cheese products as good as those I have tasted in Europe.

This is the genius of the poor, and it has been unleashed thanks to the presence, the talents and the compassion of the rich.

Maricel’s talent was unearthed thanks to the vision and commitment of Xilca Alvarez, a former public defendant lawyer who turned to social business as a more effective path toward social justice. Where Maricel could not see beyond immediate surroundings, Xilca could see the potential market for selling locally made gourmet cheese and dairy products in Metro Manila.

Starting the business was extremely challenging: “There were moments when I wanted to return to the comforts of secure employment and knowing what to expect.

“However, I always gained inspiration from knowing how grateful Maricel was for cheesemaking. Now she gets to work so close to home and can more easily take care of her four children. She no longer has to carry her two babies while walking the entire day under the scorching sun to vend her grown eggplants. Well, let’s just say you don’t get that feeling in a regular job.”

Thanks to Xilca, Maricel is today able to stand on her own two feet and is the lead cheesemaker in this enterprise. She is already thinking like an entrepreneur: “I just hope, with a little more investment, we can grow the business so I can help more people in my community come out of poverty.”

Another graduate who became drawn to social entrepreneurship was Shanon Khadka, a management graduate from Ateneo who had grown up with big ambitions for a career in the corporate world. “I guess, deep down, there was something inside me yearning for a more fulfilling career. Then, one day I met Tony Meloto and he said he’d take me to the ‘Silicon Valley for Social Enterprise.’ He told me it was a beautiful place, with accommodations, great food, and lots of organic vegetables.”

Nevertheless, during his early days at the farm, Shanon clearly felt a bit shortchanged by the promises: “I had turned down a job with a major multinational for a career at the farm. And yet, there I was, a few weeks later rolling around in mud, wondering ‘where’s the Silicon Valley you promised me?’ In the early days, there was literally nothing here. We would sleep out in the open with faith we wouldn’t be bitten by snakes, or savaged by mosquitoes.”

The farm was, at the time, still wasteland: “I remember asking Tito Tony: ‘Where are the fields of lemongrass you promised me?’ to which he simply replied: ‘They are right here in front of you, you just need to plant it!’”

Shanon, alongside the city dwellers-turned-farmers from the local community, duly planted the lemongrass and it soon became one of the vital ingredients of Bayani Brew, a natural and locally grown iced-tea and growing social enterprise. Initially, the recipe for Bayani Brew was concocted by two nanays from the Enchanted Farm, Linda and Yolly. Seeing the potential, a small team of social entrepreneurs, including Shanon, Xilca and Ron Dizon, an executive from another leading multinational company, then packaged and marketed the product, and it is already becoming a popular drink in high-end restaurants and stores.

More importantly, it is providing valuable income to impoverished farming communities in the areas around the Enchanted Farm and, as part of the company’s advocacy to support local communities, is already financing four college students so they can go to agricultural college.

“With 12 million hectares of unproductive land in this country, there are so many opportunities in agribusiness. Our aim is that this country will have 500,000 social entrepreneurs by 2024, and that the Philippines will have fully established itself as the hub for social entrepreneurship in Asia,” Mr. Meloto tells me.

With many young graduates and professionals focusing on career opportunities in the city, often with large multinational companies, the Enchanted Farm – the first ever Farm Village University in Asia – aims to demonstrate the vast potential of the Philippines’ natural resources and to facilitate the emergence of social businesses: “It is a unique place of convergence where the rich and the poor, urban and rural, macro and micro, foreign and local can all come together to create wealth which leaves no one behind.”  

Owing to investment and partnerships with both government and private sector organizations, the Farm is just beginning to resemble the “Silicon Valley” that was first envisioned a few years ago. It aims to become a template for social enterprise and countryside development, and therefore encourage and facilitate more and more people up and down the country today, as well as abroad, to consider social business and countryside development as a viable career path.

I had come to the Philippines to discover Boracay and Palawan, and the very best the Philippines has to offer. Instead, a farming community in Bulacan suggested that by scratching beneath the surface, this country has infinitely more to offer. Suddenly, I became curious as to the other gems I might unearth.

***

Over the coming six weeks, this series will be featuring a number of the change-making entrepreneurs who will be attending the Social Business Summit in October.   

On Oct. 2-5, The Enchanted Farm in Bulacan shall host the Social Business Summit, a four-day gathering of 500 local and foreign entrepreneurs to be co-convened by Tony Meloto and newly elected Sen. Benigno “Bam” Aquino, himself a social entrepreneur and founder of Hapinoy, a nationwide network of micro-ventures.  

Attending, as speakers and presenters, shall be key global stakeholders in business and development, including awardees from the Skoll World Forum, the World Entrepreneurship Forum, Ernst & Young and the Schwab Foundation, as well as key stakeholders from central and local government who aim to provide a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs interested in starting a business in the Philippines.

***

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.”

BAYANI BREW BULACAN BUSINESS COUNTRY ENCHANTED FARM FARM PHILIPPINES SILICON VALLEY SOCIAL TONY MELOTO
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