Social enterprises spring from different motivations—saving the environment, uplifting the marginalized, and ensuring food security, among others—but what unites its founders is a keenness for turning idealism into action. In today’s digital world, where information is readily available and “real time” has become the norm, the once-common practice of waiting for solutions from government simply won’t cut it anymore. People are generally more proactive about the changes they want to see in society.
A cup for culture
Often, people get involved in social change when they connect with others who inspire them. For Benjamin Abadiano, the former Jesuit who owns the cheekily named Advocafé, a four-branch coffee establishment that channels “100 percent of its net income” toward the Indigenous people (IP) community, it was an ethnographic study project of the Manobo tribes of Bukidnon that steered him towards social entrepreneurship.
“It really opened my mind on the realities experienced by the IPs,” says Abadiano. “It struck me how a community that’s so rich in terms of culture and values—I believe they provide us our identity as a people—can be so deprived.”
“It’s become an international fad, which is good for the sector because if social enterprises don’t hit the mainstream, then people won’t think too highly of it,” Benjamin Abadiano of Advocafe.
Long before social enterprises were in vogue, Abadiano had already been working with IPs since the 1980s, staying in Mindoro with the Mangyan tribe for nine years. His team created a skills-centric high school program with a two-fold purpose: responding to the educational needs of students and providing a sustainable mechanism for the school to eventually run itself. “We called it ‘livelihood programs’ back then, but it’s the same model followed by social enterprises today,” says Abadiano, adding that it pleases him to see more people from the younger generation, especially the IP youth, getting into the space.
“Education and information dissemination are driving the trend. It’s become an international fad, which is good for the sector because if social enterprises don’t hit the mainstream, then people won’t think too highly of it. It’s just like agriculture—we all need to eat, and yet agriculture wasn’t seen in a good light. But now you see more people participating and that is creating opportunities that trickle down to the communities that need it most,” he says.
Advocafé is one such information platform. Originally created as a marketing center that would showcase the products of students of Pamulaan, the first center for IP education in the Philippines that Abadiano founded, Advocafé is a social enterprise that seeks to raise people’s awareness of the issues confronting IPs in the Philippines.
Coffee aficionados visiting the artisanal coffee shop to partake of organically produced blends from Bukidnon, Mindoro, and the Cordilleras not only leave the café properly caffeinated but enriched with stories of the lives of the IP community. These stories come not from the marketing collaterals displayed in the shop but the indigenous people themselves, as IPs make up 100 percent of the staff. “Our baker is from Ifugao, our master roasters are Tiboli and Mangyan, we source our coffee beans from IP farmers—all our operations are IP-led,” explains Abadiano, adding that he and his IP staff had no prior experience running a café and had to learn everything from the ground up, including, he amusedly recounts, “how to turn on the oven.”
A rocky road that involved a lot of trial and error and the original Malate branch almost shutting down eventually saw Advocafé breaking even in two years. “I was depleting all my savings already,” says Abadiano. Today, the IP-led café has four branches: two in Manila and two in Davao. And all are funded by the original café in Malate. “We’re seven years old this year, and I’m very happy I don’t have to go to the shop every day because it’s being run by them, the IPs. It’s supporting a lot of communities and, more importantly, showing people who the IPs are and what they can do,” says Abadiano.
It was less a decision to brand the business a social enterprise and more “a commitment to do good and impact people positively” that motivated Tajen Sui and Catherine Patacsil to create First Harvest, a Gawad Kalinga (GK) community-based social enterprise.
Sui was working as operations manager of Grassroots Kitchen, the farm-to-table restaurant of GK Enchanted Farm, and it was through this that he witnessed the innate talent of GK mothers in whipping up delicious dishes. On lean operations, he would interact with the mothers as they experimented with jams and preserves, and got insights into the lives of their communities. “A lot of this talent goes unnoticed because there’s that gap between the producers and the market,” says Sui.
That awareness eventually fueled Sui to team up with Patacsil, who was then working with Human Nature, to co-found First Harvest, a social enterprise that creates food specialty products that are sourced and manufactured locally, and whose flavorful nut-based spreads and other specialty products like Coco Sugar Peanut Spread, Tropical Citrus Vinaigrette, and Salted Coco Caramel are gaining a following.
An insight gleaned throughout the course of First Harvest’s development, relates Patacsil, is that there are a lot of people and institutions willing to do good and help out. “Through the years we have received the help of friends and volunteers, and even customers who share the same values,” she shares.
“First Harvest uses premium ingredients. We source our peanuts from Nueva Ecija, skin the peanuts ourselves, and roast it on the same day. We use absolutely no extenders and that makes the flavor naturally rich and we don’t need to add a lot of sugar,” says Patacsil. Beyond the products’ premium quality, Patacsil shares that people are buying their products because they know that each purchase goes the extra mile in making Philippine farms sustainable, which in turn will arrest the poverty experienced by Filipino farmers today.
An insight gleaned throughout the course of First Harvest’s development, says Patacsil, is that there are a lot of people and institutions willing to do good and help out. “Through the years we have received the help of friends and volunteers, and even customers who share the same values,” she says.
Having always dreamt of “crafting and telling the story of a Filipino brand,” Patacsil finds meaning in the business she has co-created. “We’re facing the dawn of the day when the youth want to live more purposeful lives and be part of the solution, which is why there’s a trend of getting into the business of kindness. Social entrepreneurship is about exercising conscience in the business, and for us, running First Harvest is one way we make ‘doing good’ sustainable.”
Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 14 No. 5