VILLABA, LEYTE — Grace Moñera, 32, was just a child when her father first taught her how to cut bamboo and turn them into amakan or woven split-bamboo mats that are commonly used as wall paneling for traditional houses in some parts of rural Philippines.
Knowing this craft has allowed her to earn extra money as she and her husband primarily rely on farming corn in their hometown of Tabango, a 4th class municipality in Leyte.
But because demand for amakan in their town is low, their family remains among those considered the poorest of the poor — earning less than P5,000 month. This qualifies them for a small amount of government aid but it is still not enough to support their 4 kids.
To help local artisans like Moñera, the Leyte district’s congressional office formed Uswag Leyte.
Uswag Leyte is a sustainable product design and entrepreneurship development program rooted in the cultural heritage of the 3rd District of Leyte comprising the towns of Villaba, Tabango, San Isidro, and Calubian,” said Cong. Anna Veloso-Tuazon.
Through the initiative, artisans like Moñera get free training and exposure at government trade fairs.
“Before we would only know how to make amakan for houses, but now through Uswag Leyte, I learned that there were other products that can be made. It’s why I’m very grateful to Uswag Leyte for including us,” Moñera said in the local language, referring to modern designs suggested by the Design Center of the Philippines.
Instead of just earning P350 per bamboo panel, she can earn P600 from new designs such as the amakan curtain, which is more intricate and delicate.
Veloso-Tuazon said the word “uswag” is the Karay-a term for "improvement, advancement, or in intangible heritage parlance, enrichment.” She explained that it is their way of enriching the heritage concepts of their province while helping artisans proliferate their art and earn better.
The legislator, who has long been fond of locally-made products, said she became passionate about promoting local artisans after meeting a 76-year-old basket maker who learned her craft from her husband who unfortunately passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic. The basket maker herself could no longer pass on her skills because of her age and illness.
“The artists are repositories of knowledge. They are culture bearers. Their knowledge would die with them unless we intervene in a timely or systemic manner,” Veloso-Tuazon said.
She realized that if they do nothing then the next generation, including her children, would not be able to enjoy the such artistic craft making.
Right before the COVID-19 pandemic, while she was still a counselor, Veloso-Tuazon and her staff started tapping institutions to help them come up with a heritage map. It was the University of Santo Tomas’ Center for Conservation of Cultural Property and Environment in the Tropics that helped train local government staff to do heritage mapping.
Antoniette “May-Ann” Gondek, project coordinator of Uswag Leyte, said they took on the actually leg work because of the COVID-19 restrictions.
She said they learned a lot about their own towns from the experience.
“Our liaison officers would go around their communities and ask where the weavers where. If they see a locally-made product in a store, they would ask where it came from until they reach the source,” Gondek said.
That was how they met Moñera and her sister-in-law Diosdada “Nora” Serat.
“Nagpapasalamat kami na nakasama kami (sa Uswag Leyte) kasi dagdag income. Medyo nakaluwag, tumaas ng konti (ang kita),” Serat said.
(We are thankful that we were able to join Uswag Leyte because it gives us additional income. We are faring better, now that we have a bit more income.)
Through Uswag Leyte, local artisans like Moñera and Serat learned from each other and from the Design Center of the Philippines, which exposed them to new and modern styles of woven decor.
Veloso-Tuazon said the goal is to be able to market their products to inclusive businesses, which they are also promoting.
An inclusive business, unlike traditional businesses, aims to support the economic base — such as farmers, fisherfolk, low-income workers, and other marginalized communities — through employment or access to affordable products and services.
“Artisans, farmers, and small holder business need all the help they can get, so local government units have to step in to leverage networks and amplify impact by creating value chain linkages that make it possible for inclusive businesses to source sustainably,” Veloso-Tuazon said.
The dream of Uswag Leyte is to link local artisans to inclusive businesses to ensure that their work will be appreciated and properly compensated.
Besides catering to the supply needs inclusive businesses, Uswag Leyte also has a member that can be considered an inclusive business.
JL Aquino Enterprises is a home-grown store in Villaba town that sells furniture made by residents.
Jeanefer Aquino, who helps manage the business with her husband Julius, said they’ve been selling wooden and synthetic woven furniture since 2008.
Their secret to success? “We ensure that our products are of good quality. We are not interested in making a big profit if the result is of poor quality,” Aquino said.
And even amid the pandemic and the subsequent decline in orders, they looked for ways to continue employing their workers.
Dionisio Rublica, who upholsters sofas, said the business owners would always find little tasks for them or would move them to other departments to ensure that they have a source of income.
Without the concern for the local workers, Rublica and his other fellow workers could have ended up unemployed like the many Filipinos who suffered during the pandemic.
Groups like Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services (IDEALS Inc.) and Oxfam Pilipinas have been pushing for the passage of the Inclusive Business Bill to help address poverty and hasten the country’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Atty. Irene Pua, legal officer of IDEALS Inc., said that unlike simple corporate social responsibility programs, inclusive businesses have a more systemic and sustainable impact.
“Yes there are people doing this (inclusive business) even without the incentive. But with the good effects in poverty reduction and women’s empowerment, you would want to replicate it,” said Pua, who explained that having an enabling policy through a new law can help increase the number of inclusive businesses.
Veloso-Tuazon is among those who are planning to support the measure in Congress as it can help local artisans such as those under Uswag Leyte.
The proposed law not only provides for the recognition and accreditation of inclusive businesses, it also envisions the creation of a National Inclusive Business Coordination Council composed of various government agencies. Through the council, inclusive businesses can get more support through trainings, market opportunities and public-partner partnerships.
But while civil society groups are waiting for the passage of the bill, pioneering local government initiatives like Uswag Leyte are already laying the groundwork.
Veloso-Tuazon said they hope to be able to solve last mile logistic challenges and help small producers like Moñera, who faces challenges in gathering raw materials, scale-up their production through innovation and partnerships.
“It will be necessary to create stronger, resilient and sustainable supply chains, and bridge gaps in the value chain particularly where there are bottlenecks in sourcing and access to funding. Institutionalizing market access by addressing issues in last mile logistics, targeted public sector funding to help bear some of the risk that smallholder businesses are unable to shoulder, would help,” she said. “These efforts can be institutionalized through legislation that will help mobilize capital towards social impact.”