3 ways to jumpstart sustainable business in the Philippines

Sustainability is deemed to be nascent in the country that is confronted by a myriad of socio-economic challenges, and so pioneering social enterprises converged this year with one purpose: To make sustainable business the new way forward.

If the Philippines is to realise its full economic potential and improve the lives of its citizens, sustainability advocates must stop working on single issues in isolation and band together to achieve change at the systemic level, said experts at a recent sustainability conference in the country. 

Speaking at the Sustainability Summit 2017, held at the SMX Convention Centre in Taguig City, Winston Damarillo, executive chairman for digital consulting firm Amihan Global Services, said: “You cannot just fix air and not worry about what’s happening in the ground. It’s a connected universe.” 

“I think there is an upcoming and extremely exciting sustainable economy in the country,” he added at the event, which was held on September 20.

The annual summit which gathered some 200 industry captains, government representatives, academics, and students, explored the important role businesses play in helping the Philippines pursue the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are a set of 17 targets adopted by the global community in 2015 which aim to end poverty, hunger, inequality, lack of access to quality education and healthcare and other social challenges by 2030.

Now in its second year, the summit was organised by Enderun Extension of Enderun Colleges, the country’s first sustainability-focused academic institution, and AGREA, an agricultural social enterprise that proposes to “make farming sexy”, especially to Filipino millennials. 

This year’s summit was themed “Systems, Synergy and Solutions” and sought to shine a light on ways different sectors can collaborate at a systemic level to create a sustainable economy in the country and achieve greater social impact.  

I think there is an upcoming and extremely exciting sustainable economy in the country.

Winston Damarillo, executive chairman, Amihan Global Strategies

Cherrie Atilano, president and founding farmer of AGREA, said that “sustainability efforts are often pursued in isolation and not tackled on the basis of systems thinking.” It is high time for “pockets” of sustainability efforts in the country to be implemented at scale, she added.

Speakers at the summit identified three sectors where opportunities for collaboration are especially promising: financing, branding, and agriculture. 

Funding opportunities for sustainable enterprises

Panellists at the summit acknowledged that one of the major challenges social enterprises in the Philippines face is a lack of access to funding.

Government-owned Land Bank of the Philippines (LANDBANK), which primarily funds projects to support the needs of farmers and fishermen in the country, offered one solution.

The bank announced during the summit that its investment focus is now expanding to climate smart lending, for projects including renewable energy. 

With a little creativity, funding gaps can also be met by adopting a sharing economy model, said Mica F. Tan, chief executive of MFT Group, a financial holdings and angel investing firm.

For example, a common problem hospitals face is a lack of medical equipment, due to cost constraints, which hinders service delivery to patients. To overcome this, several hospitals in the country today rent or purchase refurbished medical equipment instead of brand new items.

This way, hospitals save on costs and are able to make the services more affordable to patients. “Shared services is something that should be explored more in the Philippines as part of being sustainable,” added Tan.

Building a sustainable brand

Brian Bentitez McLelland, founder of bamboo bicycle firm Bambike, said the country’s export-oriented and import-dependent economic model overlooks one important asset: its natural resources.

With a little design innovation, Filipino entrepreneurs can create market opportunities for their own sustainable products, instead of simply exporting raw materials, he added.

“Most consumer behaviours are driven by branding – the design is where the value is added. As social entrepreneur, you can help create an ecosystem where farmers can do semi-processing on bamboo, which is naturally renewable,” McLelland said.

Similarly, Joseph Aloysius, creative director for fashion design firm Aloysius, which uses sources fabric from indigenous communities in the country, said that social entrepreneurs should be willing to invest in the long-term environmental and social sustainability of their business rather than focusing on short-term profits. 

“You should not be greedy. As long as you can sustain your business, sustain the people helping you, that’s how you should start,” he said. 

Making farming sexy

A largely agricultural country like the Philippines with 10 million smallholder farmers also has an enormous opportunity to lead in the world stage for sustainable production and consumption, said AGREA’s Atilano.

We teach farmers values, skills, do technology transfers and build their financial maturity. We have to equip the farmers to do business.

Cherrie Atilano, founding farmer and president, AGREA

Atilano noted that getting more millenials into farming, upskilling smallholder farmers, and empowering them to be business-minded are some of the ways to promote sustainable agriculture in the country.

The agricultural social enterprise which she founded has been mobilising communities, businesses, academia, local and national governments, and international partners to bring an “Ecology of Dignity” to farming and fishing communities on the island of Marinduque, an island province in South Luzon.

AGREA’s grassroots initiatives in Marinduque takes a “one island economy” approach where the island can produce its own needs at the economic, social, and nutritional level – a model that can scale across the country if it’s successful.  

“To reach the scale, we organise farmers into cooperatives and associations. We don’t do business unless proper organisation is happening, and unless we have achieved community maturity,” she said.

To achieve community maturity, AGREA educates farmers on values, skills, technology and financial skills that will equip them to do business, Atilano added.

Peggy Chan, Filipino chef and founder of Hong Kong’s leading vegetarian restaurant, Grassroots Pantry, added that when it comes to responsible consumption, customers can vote with their money and support sustainably sourced food. 

“Look into whoever is preparing your food. Does it come from a dignified source?”, she asked. 

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