SOCIAL BUSINESS SUMMIT 2013: Made in Payatas, sold in London

Thomas Graham - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - She may describe herself as “a typical mother in Payatas,” but there is something rather untypical about Nhing. Her business card reveals her to be Susamarie Estabillo, Workshop Supervisor for the social enterprise Rags2Riches. Prospective business partners may contact her via the mobile or email address on her card.

“Just a few years ago, when I wasn’t scavenging I would make foot rags and sell them from house to house, making around 10-12 pesos a day. Today, I make products which are sold in popular international outlets such as Anthropologie, and are displayed at places like the London Fashion Week. It’s both flattering and very exciting.”

Sweatshop workers throughout the developing world are making products which can be found on the most fashionable catwalks or at the leading retail outlets in Europe and the US. However, not many of them will represent their company with the same pride as Nhing. The difference, she explains, is in the relationship she has with her employer: “I love working for Rags2Riches because the founding partners, from the very beginning, treated us with the same respect as they treat themselves. They consider me a partner.”

One of the Founder-partners, the CEO of Rags2Riches, is Reese Fernandez. From an early age, her mother’s work as a missionary led her to befriend many street children. However, unlike them, Reese was the beneficiary of a scholarship program, and graduated at a top university (Ateneo): “Looking back, the playmates that I had before were equally as talented as me, but because they didn’t have any opportunities to use those talents, they remained at the bottom of the pile. That was really painful, and so I wanted to do something to help ease their suffering. I was looking for a career path where my own success would directly help others too.”

Seeing the potential of the poor

On a university-organized trip to investigate livelihood projects in Payatas, she met with a group of artisans, mostly women who were making foot rags out of scraps of cloth. There, she saw raw potential where others merely saw dirt, squalor and danger.

Through listening to the poor, Reese was able to “un-learn” certain assumptions about the nature of poverty: “For example, perhaps we presume that the poor are lazy. However, the stories of these artisans helped me to understand what poverty has stripped them of: their dignity, and their hope that success really is possible, since they have tried so many times, and failed over and over again.”

In the rags the ladies had been producing, Reese saw natural talent and determination to uplift their lives. However, the rags hardly reflected the latest catwalk trends. In addition, many poverty interventions, in the form of livelihood projects, fail if the poor have no way of connecting their product or produce to a market. For this, the business skills of a social entrepreneur are vital.

Connecting to market

Reese explains how she managed to connect the ladies to more affluent consumers in Manila: “It started gradually. First we just had a very long brainstorming session together with the ladies from the community about what we could do with the foot rags: we decided we would make them plain colored, and of a nice quality. Once we had our first batch ready, we went to a bazaar and displayed our products there. Of course we told the story behind the products too. We were able to sell 700 pieces in just two hours. Wow!”

Ever since, Reese feels that the company’s strong advocacy has been a considerable factor in enabling the company to grow: “I think people are always looking for meaning in life so, if you find a way to make them come back to that meaning, then obviously that is valuable. However, there should be no compromise on the quality of the product – ideally, everything in the world should be both beautiful and full of meaning.”

Sharing skills

The initial products were pleasant enough, but it was when one of the top designers in the Philippines, Rajo Laurel, offered his help that the true “magic” began to emerge: “When he looked at the rags, he saw something that none of us had ever seen. He started creating wine holders, vanity kits, and bags out of the rags.” The value of the products soon shot up, and they began to sit comfortably within the mid- to high-end fashion market.

According to Reese, many skilled people genuinely want to help the poor, but “they do not always know how to. However, Rajo was able to help us tremendously by doing what he does best, which is design.”

Inspiring the next generation

The success which Reese has had with Rags2Riches is beginning to inspire a new generation of young social entrepreneurs in the Philippines. One of them is Camina Maipid, an interior design graduate from the University of Santo Tomas.

Her budding social enterprise, Red Carpet, which produces hand-crafted bags, home furnishings and other sewn textile products, looks to provide jobs for out-of-work mothers in Angat, Bulacan: “Many of the nanays in this community were made redundant after textile factories relocated to cheaper labor markets. A prime motivation for Red Carpet is therefore to showcase the skills and craftsmanship of the Filipino, starting here.”

Camina also partnered with two other social entrepreneurs, Jai Aguilar, a business graduate from De la Salle, and Fatima Guerrero, an emerging fashion designer who supports Red Carpet as a part-time volunteer/consultant: “Fatima has been fantastic in helping us to really develop the designs of the products. In the future, we hope to source all of our materials locally and organically, so that the full benefit of Red Carpet’s growth can be felt by the local community.”

While the path has been rewarding, Camina also recognizes that the double or triple bottom-line approach (focusing on societal and environmental concerns, as much as profit) is extremely challenging, especially at first. I ask Reese what advice she would give to budding or prospective social entrepreneurs?

“Starting with the right intention is crucial. If your intention is to feel good about yourself because you’re helping, you won’t last very long, since there are times when you don’t feel good at all! Then, remember this intention all the time, because it will certainly keep you going during the bad times, and grounded during the good.”

Toward the end of my interview with Reese, her smartphone bleeps. The email is from the representatives of another leading international brand she recently met with in Paris – it appears that they, too, are interested in stocking Rags2Riches products.

Rags2Riches proves that the very best of Payatas can indeed shine anywhere, even on the most glamorous catwalks of Paris or London. I wonder if my fellow Europeans realize what they’ve been missing all these years.

Reese will be presenting at the Social Business Summit. Join her and other global change-makers at the Social Business Summit 2013 on Oct. 2-5 at the Enchanted Farm and expect to be inspired. For more information, visit the website www.socialbusinesssummit.net.


Thomas Graham 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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