SOCIAL BUSINESS SUMMIT 2013: More fun and fulfillment in Phl

Thomas Graham (The Philippine Star) - September 22, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - At a time when corruption scandals dominate the news wires and expose the “man-made” origins of poverty, it is perhaps worth noting that the true beauty of the Philippines is, according to many visitors to the country, equally “made by man.”

“If you take away the Filipinos from it, Boracay or any other beautiful beach is just a lump of sand,” Department of Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez tells me during our interview. “People travel to get reconnected and to regain their equilibrium. In this respect, what the world travels for is precisely what the Philippines has, and we have it in spades.”

While regaining one’s equilibrium may for some conjure ideas of a yoga retreat in Bali, Jimenez tells me that Filipinos might even find the answer on their own doorstep if they look beneath the surface of the national image and truly engage with its humanity. Perhaps this helps to explain the success of the latest campaign to promote more foreign and domestic tourism, with its arresting slogan “It’s more fun in the Philippines.”

The Enchanted Farm: Attracting bright minds from around the world

According to 21-year-old Clemence Tricaud, it is not even necessary to go to a beach – this particular Parisiene has found true equilibrium and meaning in the traffic and chaos of Quezon City.

I met Clemence, a Business Management student from the top Paris-based business school HEC, at the Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan. The Enchanted Farm is home to a growing contingent of young, socially engaged visitors who have come to the Philippines to become involved in social tourism, or “volun-tourism.”

The Enchanted Farm is both an incubator-hub for social entrepreneurship as well as home to a thriving rural community of former urban squatters. For many foreigners, it is the gateway to discovering the genius of the poor.

Clemence had first heard about the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm during a forum at her school and soon became curious about a prototype for sustainable development the likes of which she had never encountered before: “It wasn’t just the holistic program or ideas themselves that I found revolutionary, but rather the fact that these ideas really seemed to be followed through with actions and concrete results.”

Clemence is currently assisting “Hamlet,” an Enchanted Farm-based social enterprise that sells dumplings, patties and sausages through stalls called Hamon. She is responsible for business development, putting the skills and training she acquired in Europe to help grow an enterprise whose focus is to generate opportunities and an income stream for marginalized communities.

When Europeans come to learn

However, while Europeans like Clemence come to offer their own expertise, many of them end up learning even more themselves: “The undefeated optimism of people I have met here, especially the poor, is mind-blowing.”

Indeed, in an age where talk centers on sustainability, Jimenez explains that the Philippines has the one resource which is perhaps the most difficult to sustain: “The sustainability of hope is what you find in spades in the Philippines. The Filipino chooses to be happy because he never loses sight of what is important.”

Jimenez goes on to suggest that the optimism and culture of mutual care in the Philippines has its origins in the Philippines’ own climatic conditions: “As long as centuries ago, this country was already being hit by typhoons and precarious weather conditions. Filipinos decided back then that we couldn’t count on anything else except each other. As a result, our culture is very heavily focused on care for the other individual.”

Back at the farm, Clemence soon became eager to discover more of what the Philippines had to offer. She had visited some of the Philippines’ most spectacular sites, and yet it was during a visit to the rather more humble surroundings of the GK Silver Heights village in Caloocan, Quezon City, that Clemence found the treasure she was searching for.

Originally intending to stay for only a couple of hours, she extended her stay to several days, and by delving under the surface she discovered the community’s true charm: “I learnt so much. I discovered such a unified community, where they shared what they have and planned for the future together. They really felt they were part of the same big family.”

As a business student, Clemence became aware of the enormous talent which existed at the bottom of the pyramid, if only the poor were empowered and not left behind: “Feeling part of their wider family, it also makes you increasingly determined to help them. Social business is a way of doing that.”

At Silver Heights, Clemence had the opportunity to meet many different bayani, one of whom was Benjie, a 32-year-old who, when just 13, ran away from an abusive father in Mindanao and arrived in Manila alone, with no money whatsoever and no family to welcome him. His ability to survive on the unforgiving streets of Manila, and yet still become the warm, caring and balanced person he is today was, for Clemence, truly humbling: “He went out of his way to take such care of me. This, despite the fact that I am not even able to imagine all the suffering he has had and still has to overcome.”

That a former squatter was able to have such a profound impact upon an educated young girl from one of the world’s most sophisticated cities is testimony both to the basic humanity of the Filipino and also to the impact of Gawad Kalinga, whose 2,300 villages, built in partnership with the poor, provide a platform for such enriching encounters to happen.

Benjie himself told me he was deeply surprised that people might be interested in his story: “We all feel very blessed and uplifted when people visit our community, especially from abroad. Just a few years ago, when we were squatters, if anyone from outside wanted to visit our community it was simply to evict us.”

Jimenez feels that the country’s tourism campaign has encouraged the Filipinos themselves to realize their own true worth: “Through this campaign the Filipino seems to have finally found his center. Filipinos have realized: ‘Oh, we are the people they (the foreigners) have come to visit.’ Even if we may have our shortcomings, we will certainly be fun.”

In addition to the Filipino’s many more talents, it is by wearing their humanity on their sleeve, and through showing themselves to be both open and vulnerable, that the Filipinos reveal their most authentic appeal: “By offering ourselves as a mirror for your anxieties, emotions, etc., we will also allow you to reconnect with your own humanity. After all, the greatest and most meaningful adventures happen when you end up discovering something about yourself.”

The genius on our doorstep

Looking around the Enchanted Farm today, a large proportion of volunteers are from Europe, the US or other Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore. But are Filipinos themselves aware of the beauty and potential which resides on their own doorstep?

One Filipino-American I met at the Enchanted Farm is Michael Gonzalez, a successful 32-year-old self-made entrepreneur who, after spending much of his life in the US, recently decided to come “home” and become a social entrepreneur. He suggests that the Filipino diaspora is beginning to realize that pastures are not necessarily greener elsewhere: “What’s exciting is that here in the Philippines you have the opportunity to start a business which can make such a direct difference to people’s lives.”

Another intern I met at the Enchanted Farm was Hannah Feldnan, from Oxford, England who has been struck by one aspect of Filipino life above all others: “There is one particular aspect – bayanihan – that I wish we had more of back home.” Coming from one of the most famous student cities in the world, Hannah chose the Philippines as the best place of learning for her.

Having traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, Hannah explained why she decided to come back to the Philippines: “People were kind and polite everywhere. However, in the Philippines it is somehow easier to build up true relationships with people.”

Jimenez tells me: “You are never a stranger for longer than 24 hours in the Philippines. After a few days, you’re already Tom, and then, if you make the mistake of staying long enough, you’ll probably end up at somebody’s christening as ninong (godfather). Before you know it, you have a whole new family on the other side of the world.”

Has the Secretary read my mind? I immediately think of my own godson, Thomas George Olasiman, the infant son of my regular taxi driver, and quite possibly the only Filipino with such an Anglo-Saxon sounding name in the entire Quezon City vicinity. Now, could that possibly happen on a beautiful beach in the Maldives, on a yoga retreat in Bali, or indeed anywhere else in the world?

Join Clemence and other young change-makers at the Social Business Summit (Oct. 2-5) at the Enchanted Farm, and expect a life-changing experience. Jimenez and the Department of Tourism will be there discussing social tourism and will host the third night cocktails and entertainment. 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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