ECHOcafé puts sustainable products on the menu

(The Philippine Star) - June 25, 2012 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - It’s been four years since bosom buddies Reena Francisco, Jeannie Javelosa and Chit Juan first pitched their winning idea for a social enterprise called ECHOstore at the Business in Development (BiD) Challenge in the Netherlands. ECHO is the acronym for Empowering Communities with Hope and Organization.

The talented trio had a matching three-cornered vision to “nurture the self, the community and the environment” through their innovative enterprise. What finally clinched the judges’ nod was their business plan, which stood firmly, yet again, on three pillars. The first two consisted of ECHOstore, a now widely recognized outlet for sustainable lifestyle products, and ECHOmarket, which sells natural and organic fresh produce every day of the week.

Recently, the full “ECHOsystem” was realized through its third pillar, ECHOcafé. The founders had actually been serving coffee in ECHOstores from the start, but in those early days, their focus was on building up the store inventory of community-sourced products — from home remedies and handbags to handicrafts.

As more and more farm goods were added to their product mix, the decision to start a full-service café came almost naturally. What better way to showcase the locally made cheeses and guava-based salad dressings of the Tugdaan community, or sun-dried tomatoes from Nueva Ecija women farmers? It was Reena, the chef among the founders, who put these ingredients on the menu of ECHOcafé through unique pasta, sandwich and breakfast recipes.

“Our customers had the chance to taste the product first before buying a whole lot of it,” Reena says.

They realized early on that ECHOstore had to “walk the talk” regarding sustainability. “If you keep using natural materials and you’re not planting these, then you’re not really sustainable,” remarked advocate-in-residence Jeannie. Thus they began growing a steady supply of organic and natural arugula, romaine lettuce and other greens. ECHOfarms was put under the reins of Chit, the long-time coffee farmer. She cultivated a wide variety of vegetables as well as guyabano, banana, pineapple and papaya alongside her coffee trees in Amadeo, Cavite. Being the partner in-charge of ECHO Sustainable Initiatives Foundation, Jeannie put effort into identifying and sourcing more indigenous products, particularly from small farmers.

The recurring observation almost everywhere they went was that many products were very good, “but we never get to see them in Manila.” Jeannie and Reena have spent time in places like Camiguin Island trying to influence the artistic designs and packaging methods of local women artisans. Also among ECHOstore’s proudest achievements to date was a joint effort — together with the Peace and Equity Foundation (PEF) and Netherlands-based development organization ICCO — that gave rise to seven ECHOVillage Stores located in Baguio, General Santos, Bacolod, Puerto Princesa, Naga, Sorsogon and Loyola Heights in Quezon City. The ECHOVillage Stores are looking to attain financial sustainability for the different NGOs who operate them. Just as important, however, are ECHOstore’s marketing infrastructure and linkages vital to gaining market access for community-made goods. The ECHOstore owners didn’t simply lend their brand identity but have shared their product development and merchandising experience, as well, toward promoting sustainable retail enterprises in the countryside.

ECHOstore has evolved a lot as a socially oriented enterprise over a relatively short period. More significantly, its proponents are driven to expand their impact and social benefits further. They now talk about replicating their “ECHOsystem” through licensing (a tweaked franchising scheme) in response to inquiries from potential partners nationwide. You can learn more about these opportunities in sustainable social enterprise by visiting www.echostore.ph or checking their Facebook site (ECHOstore) and Twitter account @echostore. The flagship store is located in Serendra, right across Market! Market!

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