“The coronavirus pandemic caught us by surprise,” says Zarah Juan, an entrepreneur who started with a P15 capital to make reusable bags. The lockdown has halted production by artisans.
“The need to provide for livelihood for our communities does not change, but it has become more challenging,” she adds.
However bleak the retail landscape, social enterprises try to keep relevant. Business is only part of the equation. “We try our best not to leave anyone behind as we navigate through this pandemic,” says Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, founder of Rags2Riches (R2R), which produces eco-ethical fashion and home products. Now the enterprise has turned to the making of “things that matter,” such as personal protective equipment (PPE) for health front-liners. Its face masks and other PPE are made of indigenous fabrics and have been well received.
R2R artisans have sewn more than 15,000 reusable face masks and filters using textile from stock fabric on hand, and from donors such as Ikea Philippines, Wanderskye and Neon Island.
R2R has also provided some 200 meals for front-liners.
The entire R2R team and workshop artisans have not stopped receiving their salaries in full. “It has not been easy,” Fernandez-Ruiz says, “but we will be working even harder to continue this.”
Paloma Urquijo Zobel faced the lockdown without skipping a beat. The owner and creative director of Piopio, the lifestyle brand that supports artisans around the country, opened a virtual store. Orders could be placed through Instagram (@piopio_tindahan).
Piopio started three years ago when Zobel started engaging weavers and craftsmen around the country to create unique designs for apparel and other fashion accouterments. They were the stakeholders who inspired her to create the online store, offering traditionally woven face masks, jackets, clothes and bags that contributed to relief efforts.
“We set up a fund called the Artisanal Relief Package Fund on the first day of the lockdown, aimed at sending essentials and supplies to artisanal communities around the Philippines who were unable to work,” she says.
“To raise funds,” she explains, “we did a few things: 15 percent of every sale from our weekly virtual tindahan pop-up immediately went to the fund. This was a special shopping experience on Instagram. We also created DIY (do-it-yourself) kits that people could buy from us, which included sewing tools, Piopio fabric and basic sewing patterns that allowed them to create fun projects at home.”
Each kit purchase contributed one relief package to beneficiaries. The relief packages included rice, canned goods, toiletries, vitamins and medicines for one family.
“We are sending around 30 packages a week,” says Zobel.
Carabao bags, vegetable dispensers
To survive the economic downturn, artisanal communities have to collaborate. “We had to think of ways and solutions to create products that our advocates will enjoy while they stay at home,” says Juan, whose Tahanan Collection (TC) was established originally “to provide comfort and joy to clients and to continue our livelihood program.”
Most of TC’s new inventory was inspired by existing bags to match the home collection.
Artisans from Cavite worked with wicker to create the Silang Pineapple Veggy Dispenser, taking off from the design of the popular bag. The Islaw Carabao Bag inspired the Islaw Planter Basket, a multipurpose container. The Carabao Bag itself is repurposed as a coffee table accent piece, “since few people go out these days,” Juan says.
Handmade pieces are collaborations of different communities, including the T’boli of Lake Sebu, Bagobo Tagabawa of Davao, weavers from Ilocos Sur, Cavite and Bulacan.
The Pag-asa pillowcase is stitched by Bulacan artisans who use inabel cut fabric handwoven by communities in Abra. It is embellished with hand beading by the Bagobo Tagabawa tribe from Davao.
Lockdown restrictions did not stifle ideas. Stenie Coyiuto Tay, who also works with local craftsmen, created planters for fresh bloom arrangements of her Fig and Vine. The floral studio enlists florists and artisans to create unique designs while boosting livelihood.
Nature continues to be an inspiration for products. Kyla Olives Laurel, creative director of Olive Tree Corp., says she was inspired by the outdoors because that’s “what people (on quarantine at home) miss seeing.” Taking from their collection illustrated by Alessa Lanot of Life After Breakfast, blue butterflies were embroidered on table napkins. “Since everyone is spending most of their days eating around the dining table, these small elements remind us of simple joys,” says Lanot.
While not discounting the very daunting challenges of commerce, there is a buoyant spirit underlying the efforts of social entrepreneurs. “If anything, the lockdown made our work even more important for us,” Fernandez-Ruiz says. “The reason we built R2R in the first place was to provide opportunities to some of the most vulnerable members of our society. These same people and their communities will be even more vulnerable now. Inequality and poverty will worsen.”
“Now that the lockdown is easing up, we are using our platform to help artisans move their inventory and receive additional revenue,” says Zobel. “They mail their items such as fabrics, masks or embroidered products to us, and we sell them through our different channels.” At the end of her email, she says: “This has given me purpose these days.”
Fernandez-Ruiz takes stock of things to come. “I think the future is still going to look bright for us, but I am also preparing for a much harder road ahead. We can’t just chill and wait things out. We have to play offense as well by creating innovative products that our artisans can make and make a living out of. We want to be part of building a better world with fairer and more compassionate systems in place.”
Never has shopping for Filipino-made products been more meaningful and urgent. —CONTRIBUTED