Text and interview by Freniel Austria
Photos by Allen Esteban
The tarnished iron rings of the tricycle are on the edge as we traverse the uneven pavements, a mix of concrete and gravel surface, of Encanto, a barangay in Angat, Bulacan. A two-hour travel from Metro Manila, after boarding a bus and a jeep, then a tricycle, the grove of trees that overcasts roadside shadows is atypical of the towering buildings and nests of wires in the city. The timber trees and untamed grasses along the way have an otherworldly charm, a vestige of the legend of its name.
From the main road and through Pundicion Street, the tricycle makes way to a narrow passage, with few residences at the entryway. Farther, houses and trees slowly vanish; the little June wind prances down the pastures and vegetation surrounding it, shaking the somber fringes of rice panicles. The tricycle stops at the gate of a secluded tree-laden estate with a concrete signage “GK Enchanted Farm.”
Inside is an access route, primarily designed as a woonerf, with a bicycle hub on the side. The surrounding is extraordinary, like a village in a Japanese prefecture – strings of lanterns suspended by wires, thickets of bamboos abound the area, a small roundhouse shop with a thatched conical roof. The marriage of modern green architecture and rural design is quite unfamiliar, almost bewildering, inducing us to wear our clothes inside-out. But there are no engkanto nearby, no tikbalang resting atop the trees or dwende playing in the earthen mounds on the undulating terrain. There is only a herd of zebras.
The Zebra Harem
From the gate, we take cover at the Hyundai Center for Green Innovation, just in front of the bicycle hub. It is one of the most prominent structures in the area, born from the shared vision of Gawad Kalinga (GK) and HARI Foundation Inc., the corporate social responsibility (CSR) arm of Hyundai in the Philippines, to build empowered and sustainable communities. The eco-designed building is a fusion of the cultural aesthetics of bahay kubo and Hyundai’s design philosophy of “Fluidic Sculpture,” inspired by the organic shapes and flowing lines of nature.
Donning a polo shirt, with a shade starker than the Prussian blue and a logo of GK on the back, Jaypee Jose greets us with a warm smile and a handshake. Being only 24 years old, he is already one of the mainstays of GK Enchanted Farm. Very well-disposed, he talks confidently, someone who speaks from experience. His sense of maturity makes him only rather sanguine. “I am a determined and positive person—it’s either I win or I learn. Whenever I’m stressed, I look for random people to talk to, anything about life,” he describes himself.
“It’s 35 hectares,” Jaypee points his finger at the map of GK Enchanted Farm, alongside Arch Angel Center for Arts and Culture, a multi-purpose hall donated by Victoria Court Group, where a group of kids are playing as we walk toward the Berjaya Garden Restaurant and Culinary Center (BGRCC). “If you are familiar with Berjaya, one of the biggest hotel and property developers in Asia. The concept is farm-to-table: they serve the partners, students, and visitors who come here with food that has been locally grown or produced.” The culinary center is a training facility for students to develop their culinary skills.
But Berjaya, which is a diversified conglomerate based in Malaysia, does not intend to have BGRCC as its only CSR project in the Philippines. Headed by their founder Vincent Tan, Berjaya is actively involved in the causes of GK. They have donated millions of pesos for the construction of several houses for the GK communities in the country. Employees of their Philippine subsidiary, Berjaya Philippines Group, have also participated in carrying hollow blocks and mixing cement in the housing projects.
The housing projects have been the core program of GK. True to their name, which means “to give care,” GK has built over 2,000 communities, improving the lives of 60,000 families. But it is continuously evolving throughout the years, their model now “continues on to include community empowerment, access to mainstream opportunities and basic services, and eventually to character building and good citizenship… Gawad Kalinga did not go for a project mentality with a timeline for entry and exit.”
At the heart of GK’s roadmap to end poverty is breeding zebra companies. GK’s “Build, Build, Build” program is what our economy needs, from building communities, building the social movement, to building social businesses. In the past years, the Philippines has sustained a growth in investments and businesses, even start-ups are propelled to achieve robust profits. But the moral landscape is changing, with business models leaning towards the balance of profit and purpose, and driving economies to impact investing and environmental sustainability. They are known as “Zebra” in the business community, the black and white stripes of the animal signify profitability and social impact, neither outweighs one another. Like zebras, part of the family of African equids, they have communal behavior organized in social groups called “harems.” They are mutualistic, working together to protect and preserve the harem. Unlike a “Unicorn,” a term to describe venture capital start-ups valued at $1 billion or more, Mara Zepeda of Switchboard defines zebra companies as “real” and “built with peerless stamina and capital efficiency, as long as conditions allow them to survive.” They fill the schism of for-profit and non-profit.
GK is a forerunner of this economic movement. Adjacent to the Arch Angel Center for Arts and Culture is the GK Community, housing more than 50 Filipino families. GK is helping these families bridge opportunities and resources. They build social enterprises, a zebra company that promotes financial, social and environmental impact, where these families can have direct involvement. Part of their program is to create “economies that promote justice and fairness and refuses to leave anyone behind.”
Many social enterprises reside in GK Enchanted Farm. Bayani Brew, inspired by Filipino heritage tsaa recipes, has their production facility in the area. The story of Bayani Brew started from the titas in the community, as Jaypee calls them, providing iced or hot herbal teasan to the visitors of GK Enchanted Farm. There’s also the processing facility of First Harvest. Their famous products include peanut spread and peanut crunch. First Harvest reinvests some of their profits into community development and college scholarship programs. Behind First Harvest is the Plush & Play workshop, where titas hand-stich and sew educational stuffed toys and felt items. They have stuffed toys that are fruit or veggie-themed like Buko Martin, Manny Pakwan and Ryan Bawang. Next to it is the production area of Ambension Silk Enterprise, where weavers create scarves and shawls from the eri silkworms raised at the farm. Other social enterprises incubated at GK Enchanted Farm are The Bee Empire, Karabella, and Kayumanggi Organics.
The challenges that these social enterprises face are ability to scale and sustainability. GK helps these zebras survive by encouraging their birth and nourishing them through maturity, by partnering with GK communities, employing GK residents, including GK communities in their supply chain and reinvesting their income through GK programs.
“Every enterprise should be a social enterprise. I can see that social enterprise will be the trend of businesses in the Philippines. There’s a forecast that in 5 to 10 years, our country will be one of the 30 countries with powerful economies in the world, and the increasing number of social enterprises in our country is a great contributor to the development of economic productivity and standard of living,” Jaypee shares his view of the future of social entrepreneurship in the country. “Also, the continuous evolution of social enterprises in the Philippines might break the mainstream markets, while playing a premium role to social, economic, and environmental responsibilities,” he adds.
SEED of Hope
At the pinnacle of GK’s model is inclusivity, and it starts with the youth. They seek not only to develop social enterprises, they cultivate a generation of social entrepreneurs to break the barriers of poverty. The School of Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development (SEED) is GK’s response to this call. SEED provides an “education-based solution to rural development.” The program was launched in 2014 to serve as “a model for rural development through education and hands-on learning mentored by an international team of social entrepreneurs and innovators” as it “prepares students to create social enterprises that will develop rural areas through rural job and wealth creation.”
Jaypee is one of the graduates. His family was awarded with a house through a sweat equity by GK years ago in Aritao, a second-class municipality in Nueva Vizcaya. A member of an indigenous tribe, his overflowing confidence and enthusiasm to study has made him a leader of Serving in God’s Army in their community, which opened a window of opportunity to him. “A lot had happened until I went to the GK Enchanted Farm 3 years ago with a confused soul and a broken heart. I studied under the SEED program where I learned about myself, not knowing that in the process of helping and healing others, I had healed my own,” he tells the evolution of hope and love that propelled him to where he is now.
SEED is driven by “a deep commitment to nurture the genius of the young poor and rally them to cultivate the natural abundance of the country.” It is built on the vision of GK, which believes “that poverty is a behavioral problem with economic consequences, thus the response is anchored on building a culture of caring and sharing so that no one is left behind,” recognizing that providing land, homes, and food is just the start of the journey out of poverty. “It can only be brought to fullness with an accompanying economic platform that will create opportunities for sustainable and inclusive wealth creation.”
“I am now part of [the] SEED team,” Jaypee joyfully shares. He is currently managing the partnership relations of the school. He updates current sponsors and partners, securing their schedule for meetings, presenting the programs, and reporting. “My seniors supervise all of these. I am still in the stage of deepening relationships with current and new partners,” he outlines his daily grind at the farm. “I am into friend raising, because more than monetary support, at the end of the day, I want more and more people to be one with us in this mission of ending poverty.”
He tours us around the classrooms of SEED, the rooms have natural ventilation, the breeze glides through the wide doors and glass windows. Their simple structure, hemmed in lush greenery and plants flourishing with flowers, is a metaphor of Jaypee. “My Mom taught me to embody humility and be an open-glass everyday, as everyday is an opportunity to learn, yet never trade yourself, your family, and your values,” he shares. These classrooms have been the training ground of more than 150 scholars who graduated as of June 2019.
SEED has different student programs. It is a registered educational institution under TESDA, licensed to develop and offer the Certificate in Social Entrepreneurship. This program equips students with “competencies to create social businesses that will help communities and rural areas develop through job and wealth creation.” Another is its affiliation with foreign educational and non-profit institutions through SEED Global Exchange, where students and mentors from foreign partner institutions study and immerse in the Philippines, and provide learning opportunities to the students and mentors of SEED. Students who complete their basic formation and training in SEED are given continuing support through their Graduate Accelerator Program. “After graduation, there are 3 tracks we can choose from. Employment track, where they will help us get in to the companies we want to work for. We can also choose to start our own social enterprise, where they help us with the business plan and the capital requirements. Or choose the mission track, where we continue to be part of the program and help spread our cause,” he shares his experience during his formative years. “I chose the mission track. My role now is to engage partners to our program and to support more scholars who have the same background as me. On top of this, my role is to become my “brother’s keeper,” a humble manifestation of my love for God and my country.”
As a social enabler, Jaypee crosses the boundary from SEED to a national social movement. Somebody who has his own story of poverty, he always speaks from the heart. “I am grateful for the greatest privilege I have ever had in life. GK treated me like a family member. GK did not just allow me to cross that line drawn for the poor; it allowed me to define my own line, from poverty to reaching possibilities. Painting a brighter future is now just ahead of me.”
And we are not surprised that he speaks articulately; his current role has helped a lot. “I remember when we were new here, we hid in the CR when there were international partners and students visiting us. We were so afraid to speak in English,” he recalls. His optimism and friendliness only make us yearn for a lengthy discussion with him.
Can you share with us your personal values? Humility, honor, honesty, and love for God and country. These are the values I personally keep in head, hand, and heart. This allows me to live my life with dignity, complement other values in life, and serves as the guidance in my personal and professional growth.
What was your most difficult time and how did you push through it? Every day is a struggle and a milestone. One battle that I constantly face is making a choice every single time – the moment I wake up in the morning, it’s a choice, either I go and make a life, or I stay and do nothing.
Accepting poverty as a fact of life made me suffer from deprivation and left me no choice in life. I let this define myself before but as a proud SEED graduate, I choose to grow my humility by redefining myself, in order to become a medium of goodness that will break the poverty code.
Together, let’s reform the norm and inspire standards to do better. Let us define our world before it defines us.
As part of a tribal group, could you describe or share your experience on the socio-economic landscape, in terms of source of living, class disparity, education, and accessibility to primary needs? Being [a part of] an indigenous tribe was not an issue when I was growing up. It was only when I went to high school and met other members of indigenous tribes in our school that I became aware of the differences. There was a time in my life when people saw us, the tribal residents, as lesser Filipinos, just because we have poor competencies in life and that our source of living is farming. I saw how people belittled the tribal communities because they see us too slow in adapting with the modern world of changes, and for the longest time, many tribal communities accepted this as a fact of life.
“Living in the mountain” became a casual joke then for people who got to try things for the first time, deriving it from indigenous people who are literally living in the mountains, clueless of modern advancement. Some also were being taken advantage of, like for example, they have agricultural produce, because they don’t have a deeper understanding of the market, some people will buy it at a cheap price.
I think most tribal residents have high regard for education. We give importance to education as we see it as a key to being more empowered, a tool for progress and growth, and a better chance or to access wider opportunities. Now, in the emergence of tribal residents who have acquired quality education, what I observed as a prevailing perception is that, most of the tribal residents are inspired and actively participating and engaging in the society representing their communities. Though some still experience challenges, like work, which is still a priority for immediate survival, that pushes education to the back seat. They tend to secure the stability of food and this compromises and influences education.
How do technological advancements affect their way of living? How does it shape the preservation of customs and traditions? What is your idea on how technology and tradition harmonize? I might not have concrete observations on this for I no longer live with most of them, but I believe that technological advancement may lead to disruption to traditions in many ways. Technology has created faster-moving lifestyles and that may distract what is important. Yet, personally, I don’t see anything bad in the adaptation for it also caters positive impacts, for example, technology nowadays is a powerful tool to connect to markets, it can be helpful for tribal communities to be able to improve agriculture as their main source of living, expand and reach larger markets.
Change is inevitable. What should remain is the realness of things that tribal residents are no lesser Filipinos but are also world-class. That poverty doesn’t respect any labels and so we should not hinder our holistic growth with labels and become victims of it. The way Filipinos consume and patronize imported brands; we should double our efforts in promoting and patronizing our proudly Filipino brand, our being as world-class Filipinos.
We must advance but also preserve the culture by harnessing and highlighting the talents and gifts of our people, and our country.
In terms of mindset, how do they view poverty? What are the key challenges they face, socio-economic wise? What do you think are the fitting solutions to these challenges? There are supports that recognize the tribal groups, yet poverty incidence is not reduced because growth has not been broadly shared across socio-economic classes. I believe that inclusivity is a key that everyone will surely benefit. Our differences should not divide us. Inclusivity means being able to actively participate in community life, working in harmony with tribal and mainstream perspective, and to feel engaged without having barriers. Regional and rural development, pro-poor economic growth and moving up the value chain and agriculture business will be a great help for tribal residents. Including them to perform in the economy by empowering them will also build a better self-image. Being in an inclusive set-up will strengthen our voice and identity as a tribal resident and inspire a sense of belongingness.
What are your success habits? “Success happens when opportunity meets readiness,” a line from a man I humbly respect. Probably, a success habit that I practice is that, if you want to achieve something, have perseverance, build it in faith and commit yourself to it. Some days are blurry, but it’s okay to fail, so fail fast and be better, and that will prepare you to bigger failures, because failures are part of success.
Any entrepreneur or businessman you look up to? Mr. Dylan Wilk, founder of Human Heart Nature, for he has raised the bar high for social enterprises in the Philippines. I was one of their scholars together with other partners, and he inspired me in providing high quality products, improving the lives of employees, and engaging communities into the value chain. Human Nature is definitely a social enterprise – pro-Philippines, pro-poor, and pro-environment.
What’s the story you would always want to share to inspire others? It’s a story of my fellow SEED alumnus Jerardo, who is a dear friend and dormmate from a community of blind people. He considered these people as family and saw them as “Persons with Dreams.” He wants to establish an enterprise utilizing the talents of these people in offering hand massage and wellness. I truly admire his dedication to help his community rise from poverty. Jerardo is just one of the 150 graduates of SEED who share the same dream and project the same energy.
“...let’s reform the norm and inspire standards to do better. Let us define our world before it defines us.”
The afternoon breeze blows steadily amid the sweltering heat as we leave the Bamboo Palace, the great canopies of white cloud throw shadow over fields, the sway of trees calling for a siesta. A family from the GK community is eating al fresco on the wooden floor, their smiles are like the temperate beauty. We walk through the brick path to exit to the access route.
At the souvenir store, Jaypee tells us to try the salted egg caramel ice cream from Karabella, a dairy product made from carabao’s milk. He introduces the other products in the store we can purchase before we go back to Manila, all from the social enterprises incubated in the farm. “People might not see me as a successful social entrepreneur yet, but soon with His guidance. Behind all this, what people must know, SEED has awakened my entrepreneurial DNA,” he affirms his blood, as child of Encanto.