Social Entrepreneurism and the Filipino Spirit

BY BERNADEE UY

 

“If there was an Olympic gold medal for the human spirit, the Filipinos would win every single time.” With these words, her majesty’s ambassador Asif Ahmad officially closed the six-week Balloon Fellowship Programme last 26th of August.

“If there was an Olympic gold medal for the human spirit, the Filipinos would win every single time.”

Flashback to the first few weeks of July, when we were still setting up the programme and preparing logistics for the twelve UK volunteers who would be working with 23 local entrepreneurs from Baguio City to pilot and scale enterprises, I remember asking Balloon COO Doug Cochrane, “So why work with micro and small enterprises, why not work with social enterprises?”

His answer was very simple, “In developing countries we’ve worked in, people have a hard time fending for themselves and finding their next meal. How do you tell them to start thinking about their communities?”

It made sense. After all, in a world where only the strongest survive, people need to take care of themselves first and foremost. Social value and social impact are probably alien concepts. With this mind set, we opened the programme with our UK volunteers and Filipino entrepreneurs.

In our kick-off last 21st July, I started rethinking this framing because as the entrepreneurs presented their business, they already mentioned impact, albeit on a small-scale basis:

“I want to do something that will not just be useful for me but for the society.”

“Our canteen is already starting to employ scholars who can work for tuition.”

“I want to create an app that will allow safer and easier cash transactions between farmers and buyers.”

I was pleasantly surprised.

The other entrepreneurs were more straightforward. Chloe Kiswa, an English teacher who runs her lemon family farm on a part-time basis, joined the programme to learn more about business. Still others were upfront about joining for the business grant.

I attended the culminating event six weeks later, and heard the pitches of the entrepreneurs.

I was surprised at how much the entrepreneurs evolved. Chloe, for example, told us about her business. Profitability-wise, it was doing extremely well.

The team she worked with proposed that she hire two workers for the community. The results were surprising – the two workers allowed for a 50% increase in her weekly profits.

“To be honest, I do not think I need the grant. The programme was more than enough for me to learn everything I needed to learn.” Chloe requested that the grant be allocated to other people who might need it to scale their business.

Moreover, Chloe was surprised that the family farm – which originally started as a family business for the children to “get some exercise” in harvesting and planting lemons – actually had a positive impact to the workers she hired.

We found out that the workers are paid above minimum wage and get full meals twice a day, cooked by Chloe’s mom.

“As for me, my only wish now is to retire early and devote myself to social entrepreneurism.”

It was hard not to be reduced to tears. I was inspired by her story and was amazed at how she turned a business into a social enterprise with the help of Balloon. I was also impressed at the sensitivity of her family towards the needs of their community. But then again, I realise this is very typical of the Filipino.

We are sensitive and very relationship-oriented. Some people say it’s a disadvantage, but I believe these traits also keep us both grounded and passionate with our work.

This means that when we “help” people, we are not disconnected. We are not taking the marginalised as a collective that needs to be rescued.

We are “helping” people who are our friends, who we personally know and are connected with. This makes “helping” not a difficult concept but rather something which is natural and a “given”. It is instances like this that best showcase what the Filipino spirit is.

It is also instances like this that validate British Council’s focus on social enterprise work here in the Philippines. As the country shifts and evolves, we see the role of grassroots leaders and micro-entrepreneurs in providing sustainable and contextualised solutions – and with programmes like the Balloon Fellowship, we are well-placed to ensure that both the Philippines and the UK can benefit from an exchange of knowledge and dialogue in these exciting times.