Francisco Harabas’ antics and fun-loving personality brought him fame in the early 1930s. Known as “Kenkoy,” he became a household name, and his name became synonymous with anyone who was worry-free, jovial and easy to get along with.
Today, 80 years later, the kenkoy we know is given a twist and a serious mission by young social entrepreneurs. Relaunched recently, Mr. Kengkoy Backpacks sells bags made from jute and woven by a community of mothers in Daraga town in Albay.
It all started as a school project by business student Daniel Philip Dy and his friends at Ateneo de Naga University.
Mr. Kengkoy products seek to combine the old with the new and very Filipino.
“We wanted to develop a product that’s new to the market,” Dy said. “At the time, the urge to strengthen the Pinoy identity was making itself felt in fashion, and we wanted to take advantage of it.”
Living in Bicol, where native products are a usual sight in pasalubong centers, they thought of creating a product for the youth and young professionals while at the same time reinventing jute, which is commonly used for coin purses and handbags.
“We wanted to create a mainstream product with jute that is reliable and isn’t dated,” Dy said. “That’s how we ended up with backpacks.”
In their search for cheap yet quality materials for their backpack, they looked all over Albay for the community where the jute textile is woven.
A native of Malilipot town accidentally directed them to a community where the fabric was woven. They found themselves in Barangay Matnog in Daraga town, where a community of mothers has devoted their time to weaving jute textile.
“We’re happy that we found them, but we’re also saddened by the fact that they were getting less than what they deserved because of the middlemen,” Dy said.
He and his friends learned that the weaving community was getting an average weekly salary of only P400. It was then that they realized that the task would be bigger than what they expected.
“We wanted not only to generate income for them, but also to help empower them to be more engaged in the development of the business,” Dy said.
To do this, they should help preserve and promote the community’s weaving culture, which is facing extinction because of technological advancements and the shrinking market.
They adopted a group of 30 weavers whom they trained and put in development and enhancement programs, in partnership with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Science and Technology’s Philippine Textile Research Institute.
“We hope that someday they’ll realize how they can demand the right wages from capitalists,” Dy said. “That is why we are transforming their produce into the mainstream, fashionable and cool backpacks, so that the demand is sustainable.”
Based in Mandaluyong City as a management associate in a telecommunications firm, Dy flies to Bicol every weekend to check on the business and the weaving community. He and his colleagues do not only check the quality of the materials, but they also immerse themselves in the community to know the story of every weaver.
“What keeps us going is the hope of proving that one is never too young, inexperienced or busy to choose to make a difference,” Dy said. “We refuse to let struggles and discouraging words get in the way of what we envision our business would be—a proud and successful brand with a heart.”