Is the Philippines really the best country for female social entrepreneurs?

Social enterprises have helped empower women across the Philippines – but they need support to thrive.

Rina Diane Caballar
1 May 2017

Bracelets made by weavers.

Bracelets made by weavers. Photo: Rina Diane Caballar.

Colourful woven bracelets are lined up on a table in a multi-purpose hall at a church in southern Metro Manila. Attached to each bracelet is a tag with the words “handwoven with love” written on it.

Joy Odiaman, 26, signed her name on a few of these tags as well. “I can make a bracelet in one hour,” she says, gently cradling her daughter in her arms, only three weeks old. “I made these bracelets even while I was pregnant with her,” she adds softly.

The mother of three is one of the nanays (the Filipino word for mothers) who weave jewellery for Tejo, a social enterprise in Manila. Its products are sold in stores and resorts across the Philippines.

“Our first line of products was handwoven bracelets made by the nanays,” says Gabrielle Marie Cruz, 27, who founded Tejo in 2013. While at university, Cruz wove bracelets herself as a hobby. After, she said she wanted to start more than a typical business.

She explained: “There are all these different stories they weave into our products. So for clients who wear our products, I want them to feel like they are also being woven into the stories of our nanays.”

In Tacloban, in the Philippines’ central island group of Visayas, Danika Astilla-Magoncia, 31, also started making jewellery as a hobby before opening her social enterprise in 2013. It’s called Kinamot nga Buhat, a term in the Waray language meaning handmade.

Astilla-Magoncia says her focus is on working with women and young people who may otherwise struggle to find jobs because they live far from the city, for example, or do not have necessary educational qualifications. It's about being proud of the talents of the people here.

“It seems like businesses in the province are overlooked because industries in Manila are more popular,” she said, adding: “We'd like to highlight the local industry while upholding good labor practices. It's about being proud of the talents of the people here.”

In Davao, a city in the Philippines’ southern island group of Mindanao, Yana Santiago, 24, also started her social enterprise, Olivia & Diego, in 2013.

It makes “upcycled” jewellery and works with women who are survivors of human trafficking. Its items are also sold overseas including in Japan, Germany and the US.

As with Tejo and Kinamot nga Buhat, women who work with Olivia & Diego receive materials and patterns from the social enterprise, along with deadlines – though they can choose their hours, work from anywhere and are paid per piece produced.

“Being a woman helped me connect with them on a deeper level,” said Santiago, of those who work with her social enterprise. Through this experience, she said, “you connect and know and feel their struggles.”

Social enterprise: a global movement

According to the Social Enterprise Alliance membership organisation in the US, a social enterprise is an “organisation or initiative that marries the social mission of a non-profit or government program with the market-driven approach of a business.”

The Asian Development Bank describes it as a “business-oriented not-for-profit, or a mission-oriented for-profit enterprise. It has a social or environmental mission – or both – at the core of its work and seeks to operate in a financially sustainable manner.”

It's a movement that's been on the rise globally. In the UK alone, there were approximately 70,000 social enterprises in 2015 employing almost a million people.

But is the Philippines the best country in the world for female social entrepreneurs?

That was the conclusion of a 2016 study by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Deutsche Bank and the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network. It ranked the Philippines first, followed by Russia and Norway.

Also in the top ten were Malaysia, China, Thailand, Hong Kong and Indonesia. The study suggested that women in Asia succeed as social entrepreneurs because there is “a fairer playing field and higher drive to put compassion over valuation.”

Indeed, in the Philippines there is a parity — or almost parity — between men and women in management and leadership positions, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report.

Overall, that report ranked the Philippines seventh among 144 countries – and first in the Asia-Pacific region – on a list of countries and how close they are to closing gender gaps on economic, education, health and political criteria.

A 2015 report from Oxfam and the Institute for Social Entrepreneurship in Asia (ISEA) estimated that there are at least 15,000 social enterprises in the Philippines – again noting the presence of women in leadership positions as CEOs, board members, and managers. ...social enterprises create wealth and distribute wealth to the poor.

Marie Lisa Dacanay, founding president of the ISEA, describes social enterprises as organisations which have a mission to improve the lives of the poor.

Dacanay explained: “The Philippines’ economic growth is corporate-led. It’s led by big corporations who actually create wealth and amass wealth for themselves.”

Meanwhile: “Through social enterprises, growth in our economy would be more inclusive because social enterprises create wealth and distribute wealth to the poor.”

She says women’s participation is one of the strengths of social enterprises in the Philippines, with many women involved as founders or as workers. But, she argues, a conscious gender and developmental perspective is often still lacking in the sector.

Social enterprises must make a deliberate effort to employ women, Dacanay emphasises, especially those from poor or marginalised communities.

Needed: State support?

Cruz, who founded the Tejo social enterprise, previously partnered with the Department of Social Welfare and Development on a livelihoods program for a group of mothers in Muntinlupa, the southernmost city in Metro Manila.

“I wanted to come in and offer something more sustainable,” she says. “At the time we started training, a lot of them were homeless. After training, they would go home to live under bridges. That was their living situation. ”

When this program did well in Muntinlupa, Cruz wanted to recreate something similar closer to her home in Parañaque, south of Manila. She approached her local village administration with the idea, who took it up as well.

She said: “Although there were livelihoods programs by the government, the problem was finding jobs after being trained. So even if they had all these skills, the nanays told me: ‘We know how to do so many things but there’s no business employing us.’”

Social enterprises often face challenges such as a lack of capital or difficulty in accessing financial services that can help them grow their business, says Dacanay. Aside from developing and improving their products, they must also learn how to manage their business – and this of course takes additional time, and effort.

Tejo weavers

Tejo weavers. Photo: Rina Diane Caballar.

Dacanay says that small projects need financial as well as development support such as coaching and training in order to grow into sustainable medium enterprises. Overall, she says: “I think the social entrepreneurship sector will definitely grow...[but] whether it will grow faster or slower is dependent on government support.”

She added that it's also critical to “engage women in key industries such as agriculture,” however, as this “provides an opportunity for them to actually influence the main source of income of the family. The impact on them becomes bigger and the impact on women’s empowerment becomes more palpable.”

Currently, for women working in social enterprises like Tejo, these opportunities may provide second incomes – but they can also be the sole lifeline for a family.

For example, Rosemarie Tuliao, 36, a single mother of two, says her earnings from Tejo “go to my kids. I use it to buy food and rice. I use it to pay for electricity and rent.”

For her, an important advantage of this work is that she can do it from home. “That way, I can still do household chores and look after the kids,” she said.

Government support for social enterprises could come in the form of a guaranteed investment fund for social enterprises or specialised loan programs such as no-collateral loans. The private and international sectors as well as academia can help too.

The state could partner with private foundations within the country and internationally to provide social enterprise financing. It could award grants to researchers, and partner with business schools, to help social enterprises become more commercially viable.

Combined support from academia, the state and the private sector is likely needed to enable social enterprises to expand and strengthen their role in supporting women.

For Cruz, her dream is for Tejo to work in communities all over the country. “We’re really trying to make it a community-based program,” she said. “If we could start that small ripple within our community and try to replicate it in other communities then that would have meant we tried to make a difference.”

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