Tsaa Laya: The art of growing tea and creating work for the poor

(This article is also posted on Rappler.)

TAKING STOCK. Jamir and Jennylyn show what Jennylyn is growing in her garden these days. Photo by Dindin Reyes

TAKING STOCK. Jamir and Jennylyn show what Jennylyn is growing in her garden these days. Photo by Dindin Reyes

LAGUNA, Philippines – Every time you hold a cup of warm tea in your hands, you can rest in the knowledge that your tea came from tea leaves somewhere out in the world, sprouting fresh from the earth with the hot sun beating down on it.

But, do you ever wonder whose hands picked those leaves and whose loved ones tilled the earth for that tea in your cup?

From seeds being planted to tea bags being soaked, every cup of tea has a story. As a bag of Tsaa Laya tea flavors the water and spreads to air, it tells the story of Filipino women from urban areas finding their way back to wholeness with herbs, gardens, and opportunities.

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Business tips from Filipino social entrepreneurs: Believe, persevere

(This article is also posted on Rappler.)

MANILA, Philippines – “Find a problem worth solving.”

This is what the Communications Officer of the BPI Foundation, Ebony Lautner, said to a crowd of would-be social entrepreneurs in a gathering dedicated to Filipino pride. The agenda on this Muni meetup, Cacao, Tea & Community, was to get people to start thinking about the possibilities of social change through business.

Kickstarting this same agenda through healthy competition is the BPI Sinag Challenge. Held by the BPI Foundation, the Ateneo Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and BPI Family Ka-Negosyo, BPI Sinag calls out to young entrepreneurs, challenging them to create businesses that “engage and uplift those at the bottom of the pyramid.” If you enter the challenge and win, you receive support in the form of cash prizes, finance and mentoring. Why this big effort to seek, support, and sustain? Lautner said the people behind BPI Sinag want to minimize the failures of enterprises that are designed to do good.

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Risque Designs: Telling the Filipino story one shoe at a time

(This article is also posted on Rappler. Added more photos of the Risque studio here.)

There are many ways we can wear our heritage. In the Philippines, the abundance of ways we can embody our heritage come in clothing, accessories, bags, styles of hair, hats, body art – you name it. But perhaps, a lesser known expression of Filipino pride are those things we wear on our feet: shoes.

Everyday living doesn’t really lend itself well to wearing bakya (wooden clogs) day in, day out, and with the city’s daily toll on our feet, other classic options are kind of obsolete. The modern solution comes by the name of Risque.

Somewhere in Marikina is Risque Designs, a gem of a shoe-making studio that produces daily footwear with all indigenous materials. Filipino weaves, Filipino silk, Filipino wood carvings, and Filipino design all come together to make a shoe for you, a Filipino.

FILIPINA ANIMALIA. Filipina Animalia features carved heels in the shape of animals endemic to the Philippines – the tamaraw, tarsier, crocodile, and sea turtle. Photos from Risque Designs


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Filipino-made for yogis: Jaimala, Luntian bags, Bodyfood All-Natural

A little less than a week back in Manila and the unfortunate truth is, I’m still not in love with the city. Apparently, post-travel depression is a real thing.

I’m still waiting for my mind and spirit to arrive here too and it’s really taking its sweet time. So, what do I do to fill my time in the meanwhile? Yoga of course 🙂

This weekend I went to Flow in the City, an event organized by Flow Retreats and presented by Fully Booked and Aura Athletica. For the few hours I was there I felt a little bit at home again – there’s truly something to be said about being in the company of like-minded people. You may not know hardly anyone there (which was the case with me) but, just being in a space where people share the same energy as you is such a relief. Much gratitude to the women of Flow Retreats whose next events are in Ubud, Bali and Gili Air & Lombok.

I arrived right before Denise Celdran‘s wonderful and eye-opening homeopathy workshop and saw this:

… a bunch of yogis having partner-yoga fun on the floor, led by Monica Manzano. There was quite a bit of laughing and talking and for a change, it was nice to see a yoga class that wasn’t so quiet and focused inward.

The workshops and all the glorious healthy food are for another post altogether, especially now that I’m exploring eating clean seriously. Today, I just wanna share about all the wonderful enterprises that have made products perfect for us Filipino yogis.

Read on.

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Do Your Thing: A Better Story girls’ camp

After more than two years of mentoring women and holding workshops for the everyday Filipina, the Better Story Project is relaunching their advocacy with a will only a solid group of strong-ass women can manage. On March 28, they’re making their dream come true — which is, encouraging other women to dream too 🙂

The Do Your Own Thing Camp is a one-day event at GK’s Enchanted Farm in Bulacan where you’re going to be told over and over again, JUST DO IT. Just do it already. You know who you are, you know what makes you feel alive, you know what you have to do about it, so why the wait? If you don’t know yet, even the more reason to stop making excuses and actually sit down and think – what do I want out of this short life?

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Grow your urban farm with Bahay Kubo Organics

Who says you can’t be a farmer?

If you’re into living healthy, eating organic, and just seeing things grow, why not build your own farm? 🙂 With aquaponics, you’ll get to grow your own veggies and cultivate freshwater fish right in the city – even in your own home if you’ve got the space to spare. The men of Bahay Kubo Organics will teach you how.

Bahay Kubo Organics is a social enterprise that’s out to spread the technology of aquaponics so that food becomes something you produce instead of something you have to buy. Ultimately, it’s a model they want to bring to communities that have no land to plant on and communities where food security is a red flag – basically, where it’s needed most. The goal is to help communities evolve into self-sustaining pockets of green.

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Got Heart?

Got heart, will ______________.

It’s a blank you can fill in with everything and almost anything. For Got Heart foundation, it’s a phrase that sums up why they exist, what they do, and, most especially, it describes the local communities they work with. I sat down with Melissa Yeung, the founder of the little organic & local products shop that could, and she shared with me what having heart can do.

Got heart, will dream.

Since she was in high school, Melissa’s dreams involved mountains, meeting other Filipinos, seeing the country, and helping people raise the bar on the quality of their lives. The dreams stuck.

The dreams made her exchange her ideal life of simple mountain living for a masters in business. They stayed with her as she tried to jumpstart Got Heart in 2007. And they kept her afloat when later on, she figured out it wasn’t working. The first three dreams were simple, the last one, not so much.

It was a crisis all social enterprises go through: keeping the business alive VS maximizing the impact you make on the people you’re helping. Her biggest learning from all of it? You gotta surround yourself with people who have the same vision as you to make it work.

Now Got Heart is staffed with scholars she and her friends helped out when they were in high school – people who’ve experienced a helping hand and want to pay it forward.

Got heart, will serve.

Got Heart Foundation gathers up the best products from grassroots communities and puts them all in one store. Buy from them and you get good quality products while give the communities an opportunity to keep on producing and working for themselves. A small purchase goes a long way. Show them that their products are being appreciated and more than giving them money, it gives them pride 🙂

At the moment, Melissa says they’re collaborating with a little over 100 communities around the Philippines. Fresh produce comes from farmers in Benguet and Tarlac, and from the Mangyans of Mindoro. Handmade toys come from Tarlac. Beautiful recycled jewelry comes from Dumaguete. Coffee from the Mountain Province, wine from Tarlac, jam from Bontoc, wild honey from the Tagbanuas and so on and so forth.

Here there are no middlemen. After what keeps the foundation sustainable, everything goes to the producers.

If you’re curious, here are some of the stuff on their shelves:
Got heart, will flourish.
A foundation isn’t just fueled by good will, it’s sacrifice, and constantly being reminded of the problems that hound your business and your partner communities. But the work pays off.
In 2011, Got Heart received the Zonta Award for Poverty Alleviation. In 2013, Melissa was counted as one of JCI Osaka’s Outstanding Young Persons of 2013. And after opening branches in Esteban Abada and White Plains, Got Heart is putting up two more shops in Davao.
And then there’s, Earth Kitchen.
Earth Kitchen is a restaurant that serves organic food made with products from Got Heart’s partner communities. A joint project with Hizon’s Catering, it’s a social enterprise that benefits from the foundation and vice versa :)I haven’t tried it yet but I’m looking forward to it because I’ve been hearing so many good things about the food there.

Got Heart?
Why the name? Because love is making the most of the resources available to you so that you can make  life better for you and the people around you. And goodness is making sure that other people’s efforts don’t go to waste.
Having heart takes courage, as Melissa and the people from Got Heart’s partner communities can tell you. Have you got heart?

There’s business in Camotes

Last week I went on a trip to Cebu for Sinulog and supposedly, to go diving. On the way to the airport I realized my iPod was missing, the trusty iPod I’ve never ever traveled without. That’s when I knew the trip would be sliiiightly different from what I expected.

That’s an understatement.

Thanks to an unpredictable turn of events, I found myself alone with nowhere to go on the Monday after Sinulog. LOL. It’s funny now but at the time, I wasn’t so sure how to feel. Lucky me, one of my roommates at the hostel where I stayed (Tr3eats Guest House) took me in and invited me on an adventure 🙂 The conversation went something like this: “I’ve got nowhere to go.” “Me too. I’ve been thinking of going to Camotes island. Wanna come?” ” SURE.” “GAME.”

Around 5 hours later, after a scary ferry boat ride with huge waves and passengers praying in Bisaya, we were in Camotes.

Santiago beach, Camotes island, Cebu

Camotes is a small group of islands in the Camotes sea, located between Cebu and Leyte. If you’re looking for it on a map, it would be good to zoom in – that’s how small it is.

As you’d expect, life there is pretty basic 🙂 For business, mostly there’s agriculture and tourism.  And so, no wonder it seemed like everyone was happy to see us when we finally docked on the island – because of tropical depression Agaton, there hadn’t been any tourists in a week.

The first enterprising individual I’d like to write about is  one of the first people who approached us when we stepped on land: Jonas, our trusty habal habal driver 🙂

Jonas was the third member of our unlikely traveling band. He brought us everywhere (2 hotels, a beach, the port, 2 caves, and a lake to be exact), and gave us tidbits of Camotes life in between. He’s a hard worker. All the houses we had passed by on the roadside had no more gasoline because of the lack of supplies coming in from Cebu but somehow he managed to procure gas enough to take us to the sights and get us to the port in one piece. He says he used his popularity, haha!

One of the houses Jonas passed by for gas.

Customer service is also ace 🙂 We were initially planning to go home on Tuesday despite not having seen anything in the island because we were scared of getting stranded – problem is, we did get stranded and had to leave on Wednesday instead. Before we could despair, Jonas already drew up a plan of where we would stay, what we could do, and how to make sure we got on that ferry the next day.

He brought us to Alyanarah lodge, clean and very cheap. Ask about it when you’re there. A two-bedroom aircon room is 650/night. And it’s right in front of an awesome beer garden.

At the Canlusong port the next day, JOnas

didn’t leave us until we got on the boat 🙂 If you’re looking for a habal habal driver who’s good at English and Filipino and can’t seem to find one, contact Jonas at 0949-450-4786.

Yup, everyone’s hard at work when it comes to tourism, including this very cool Rasta-type family we met on Santiago beach. Aside from letting people stay at their house for 650/night, this family sells the most unique necklaces, pipes, bracelets and ornaments I’ve seen in the Visayas so far.

Every piece is inspired. According to the main maker, Jippy, no two are exactly the same. His influences are music, his friends, and in general, Filipino culture. The material also makes their stuff special – discarded animal teeth and bone, beads from Canada, crystals, recycled soda bottles, among others 🙂

Jippy, the artisan

This family also does tours and they are extremely friendly. They offered to come to our rescue when we thought Jonas had no gas! The head of the family is Paul, a very cool long-haired grandpa, and his number is 0905-885-1488.

At the balcony of their house, they sometimes play gigs (Paul is the vocalist), something I may have to go back for. Also watch out for Pito’s, which is right next to their house. Very good Filipino food 🙂

Souvenirs we got 🙂



I just had to write about these people because they made what could have been a nerve-wracking trip in an unfamiliar place fun 🙂 And because I was glad to know that in that tiny island, the Filipino enterprise is definitely alive and kicking.

Here are other things to look out for that are cheap, and most definitely helpful to Camotes tourism:

Holy Crystal Cave in San Francisco, Camotes

(No fees, just give any donation you see fit)

Lake Danao. Entrance to the park is P15.

Also, Timubo Cave, where you can swim in underground water. Unfortunately I have no pictures for because they had no gas in their generator – we had to swim in the pitch black cave with just a pinhole of light! Entrance is P25.



As a traveler, I would highly recommend you visit Camotes – just make sure you learn from my bad experience check the weather beforehand 🙂

The Carrier Pigeon Project

People setting up businesses because they want to make a living out of helping people. It’s a story we hear often – frequency doing nothing to diminish the fact that it’s inspiring.

Meet Jezze and Riz Jao, the brother and sister team behind The Carrier Pigeon Project (TCPP). They sell shoes and bags that are fashion-forward and socially-conscious, as I like to call it. Buy any of their bags or shoes and part of the money you’ve given goes to World Vision’s ABK3 LEAP project.

LEAP stands for Livelihoods, Education, Advocacy and Protection to Reduce Child Labor in Sugarcane Areas – the areas being  Batangas, Camarines Sur, Capiz, Iloilo, Cebu, Leyte, Negros Oriental, Negros Occidental, Bukidnon, Davao del Sur and North Cotabato.

A main goal of ABK3 LEAP is to lessen the occurrence of child labor. They do it through pushing youth employment services and education in the areas – a main reason why Jao siblings  picked the project.

And now, here’s where definitions blur for me, and in a good way. Most of the social enterprises I’ve encountered and met work with local communities, giving them livelihood and empowering them with skills. In TCPP’s case, they don’t work with the people they help and with very good reason 🙂 But even so, as Jezze says, the “mission… at the centre of business,” is to give kids a “fighting chance to work on their dreams” – and that’s no small thing.

Picture from the World Vision website

Like entrepreneurs do, they’re already thinking big.

Jezze and Riz want to at some point help public schools and orphanages. In the future, they’re even looking at enriching the lives of the children’s parents, to stop the cycle of poverty putting children to work.

But first, they’re looking at their product. Pity-buyers are not TCPP’s target market so they’re working hard to produce fashion that’s functional, durable, and of course, pretty 🙂

A picture of Jezze at the Good Morning Club show

Getting to know more about these two was refreshing because they’d only been at it since September 2013. Usually, the people I talk to have been working at their startups for a while already and have been part of the startup community for even longer. Most will say they had to learn everything. These two are still learning everything 🙂 They’ve called the process so far challenging, frustrating, fulfilling.

Carrier pigeons are birds that were used to send letters to and fro, way back in the day. That’s what  The Carrier Pigeon Project (TCPP) hopes to be and I’m definitely geting the message 🙂

If you’re working any kind of program or center for kids, contact them. There’s a very bright future ahead, after hard work.

The Better Story Project is Our Story

Last Saturday was a working Saturday for me so unfortunately, I was waaaaay late for the launch of the Better Story Project.

It ended at 4:30. I arrived, 4:15.

For a brief background, and because I think it’s important how you describe yourself, here’s what it says on their Facebook information:

The Better Story Project is a mentoring program for young girls… After all, your life is a story and your story matters.


Our goal is to encourage, inspire and help young girls make smarter choices, pursue their passions, be comfortable in their own skin and rise up as the heroines of their one great story. We believe in them and we are hearts-on-our-sleeves rooting for them.  Inspiring you to be the hero of your better story. 

For latecomers like me, they provided a beaaautiful press kit which the girly part of me is very happy to have 🙂 But of course, how can you write a better story with just a press kit? (See what I did there?)

So, I started going around and asking people what they liked about the Better Story Project 🙂 Specifically, I asked: which of the monthly Better Story talks and gatherings did you enjoy the most?

Cole Ochosa, who works at the local recording label The Yellow Room, says the talk she learned from the most was the one about beauty by Aileen Ponce.

For sure, beauty is  contentious subject among women. All at once, the concept of beauty can make women cower and feel worthless, and drive them to the heights of obsessiveness. But, if you look at it in the Better-Story way, it can be a source of joy and endless self-discovery.

Cole’s main take-away: You are truly beautiful if, when you leave a place, you’ve made at least one person’s life easier and brighter. You’re beautiful if you leave a mark behind – if you impress hope and happiness on people.

Lucky me, three more pretty ladies gave me their time and felt willing to share to a complete stranger. Meet Aileen Ponce (marketing for VSO Bahaginan), Chris Lacdao (teacher),  and Chiara Garcia (student taking a year off).

Aileen in black, Chris in gray, Chiara in stripes

Like Cole, Chris’ favorite talk was the one on beauty. On the day of the talk, she says she woke up feeling ugly. (Girls, we all know what she’s talking about).

She says she almost didn’t go to the talk because of the irony of it, but she went anyway. Chris found herself entering a safe space.

Chris during the beauty talk, from their Facebook

To her, the talk and the Better Story Project in general was an opportunity to talk about things you pretend to be strong about, or not to care about even. To take the words from her mouth: here, people meet you where you are and even if technically you’re speaking with strangers, these strangers are understanding, enlightening, and hella willing to lift you up on your feet.

All of us agreed 🙂

Aileen during her talk, from their Facebook.

Aileen Ponce, the one who conducted the well-loved beauty talk says it was a very gratifying experience for her too. Women and beauty and making sure those two words didn’t have a negative connection is one of her advocacies.

She opened up (for which I am incredibly grateful) and said when she was young, she felt she wasn’t beautiful because her mother never said she was. As luck would have it, her mom volunteered to go to the talk 🙂

Humbly, she says she enjoyed the discussion afterwards, better than the talk she prepared.

I can attest to everything they said 🙂

Way back in March, I attended their Spoken Word workshop: I still say, one of the scariest experiences of my life. But once you’re there, in the words of Chris, “parang nasapian ka.” (It’s like you’re possessed.)

It’s like you’re possessed with the courage to step out of your comfort zone and say everything that’s really on your mind – not just what you think people will find interesting.

It really is liberating. You realize: no, you don’t need permission to say all these things you want to say AND no, no one’s going to judge you. The feeling of being accepted and listened to with complete openness is heady and it makes you want to share more and DO more.

In that sense, I think the Better Story Project is doing their job well.

I love the Better Story Project 🙂