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GKonomics: The Business of Restoring Dignity

With their lunch waiting on the table, a family in Baseco, Tondo, sat still and prayed:

Pinky Velez Poe shows us GKonomics products.

Pinky Velez Poe shows us GKonomics products.

“Panginoon, ang bait-bait Niyo sa amin. Kulang ang aming mga kamay para tanggapin ang lahat ng biyaya na ibinigay Niyo sa amin (Lord, you are so good to us. Our hands are not enough to receive all the blessings from you).”

Pinky Velez Poe, the special guest at that lunch, did her best to hold back tears.

“You look around, and you think, ‘what biyaya (blessing)?’ There’s nothing by our normal standards—it’s a 20-square-meter house for eight people and they say ‘kulang ang mga kamay para sa biyaya,’” she said. “Where I come from, in the village where I live, families are fighting over money when there’s so much more where that money came from… It makes you realize that peace and joy really cannot be bought.”

That day, Pinky ate from a basin (the family had no extra plates), and had feeding supplement for main course and burnt rice crust or tutong with evaporated milk for dessert. And she went for seconds to make her very conscious hosts feel good.

“It’s not easy,” she said. “That’s where love comes in. Anything less than love will not do. Hindi ko ito kakayanin (I cannot do this on my own strength).”

True, no amount of experience in the corporate world can prepare privileged people, even those with the sincerest of intentions, like Pinky, for the toughest job of all—restoring dignity to those who live without it.

That is the raison d’etre of GKonomics International, Inc., a non-profit organization that works to deliver “the best for the least” by providing venues for the privileged to invest their time, talent and resources to build a sustainable livelihood for the poor, beginning with Gawad Kalinga’s (GK) 2,000 communities.

It works with anyone and everyone—from corporate giants like Accenture, Smart Communications and Coca-Cola Philippines, Inc., to social entrepreneurs like Theo & Philo Artisan Chocolates. In Pinky’s own words, “lahat pinapatulan namin.”

Today, GKonomics has 50 enterprises in 74 communities all over the Philippines.

Its showcase community, GK Sunshineville in Las Pinas, makes silver bags from recycled beverage packs. What started in 2007 as a loose group of women weaving baskets from water lily is now a million-peso enterprise that has its own center and supports at least 40 families. Sunshineville’s products have reached Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris and Hawaii.

Farther south of Metro Manila, a fishing community in Quezon that was ravaged by successive typhoons in 2004 is making a name for its sculptures crafted from driftwood like narra, mahogany, and kamagong, all precious Philippine hardwood. The fisherfolk who were displaced by the calamity found new homes at the GK Smart Village in General Nakar, but they had no livelihood. GKonomics set up a workshop with renowned Filipino sculptor Rey Paz Contreras so the fishermen can make something valuable from the driftwood that litter the province.

Banglos sculptures are now in museums and art galleries all over the Philippines.

Banglos sculptures are now in museums and art galleries all over the Philippines.

Today, Banglos (short for Bangon Kilos, which literally means “rise and move”) sculptures are favorite tokens for foreign guests in Coca-Cola conferences. They have also graced the country’s museums and galleries. But even in fame, the Banglos fisherfolk have not forgotten their past.

At a bazaar in Rockwell, the Banglos sculptors pledged to donate half of their profits from that bazaar to communities that were displaced by a recent typhoon.

“I thought they would forget about it when they see money coming in. But when we were doing their books after the bazaar, they asked us to write a check for PHP 100,000,” Pinky, finance director and one of the founders of GKonomics, recalled.

“When we said they didn’t have to give that much, they told us that they know how it feels to lose their homes, and they wanted to help. You don’t see the rich easily doing that,” she said.

Such stories of success and sharing keep the spirit of GKonomics alive, but getting to this level of expertise and sustainability, or even maturity, in GK communities is no party.

When GKonomics started in 2009 as a project of five brilliant and in their words, “mid-lifing ladies”—Pinky Poe, Cecilia David Manheimer, Rose Isada Cabrera, Divine Banaria Duran and Marivic Poblador Pineda—the volunteers had to knock on doors, literally, to get people to attend the free livelihood trainings.

Many were busy eking out a living, others were suspicious because they had been used by people who said they wanted to help, while others just didn’t care and were fine with how they were running their lives.

“We could set up a factory, hire people—that would be so much easier, but our mission is really the poorest of the poor… In the end it’s dignity restoration. It’s not the money,” Pinky said. “Contrary to what we think, the poor are not motivated by money. They’re happy with so little as long as they survive. Relationships are very important to them.”

Over time, GKonomics volunteers gained the trust of those from extreme ends of the spectrum—the “un-hireables” in GK communities and the decision-makers in the corporate world. Today, the five founders use their vast personal network to pitch enterprises that can be done by GK communities.

PInky said GKonomics seeks to engage companies through their supply chain instead of their corporate social responsibility because on a bad year, the budget for CSR is the first to go. Her usual line?

“I want to be part of your operating expenses. What do you buy regularly that we can supply for you? Yes, you’ll probably get it PHP 20 cheaper from your usual sources but if you’re willing to give that extra PHP 10 so it comes from a community…”

“But having said that, we want to make sure that our products are not pasang-awa. We don’t want pity buys. Someone who buys from you out of pity will buy one (item), they will not buy 25,000 pieces,” she said. So product development and quality check are crucial to the social enterprises of GKonomics.

At the start, it was frustrating for the team because the products were really not passable in the mainstream market. Even the Banglos sculptures were at first all about fishing. But with further training and constant exposure to bazaars, high-fashion magazines, design schools and input from experts, the GK communities’ output can now compete with commercial products.

“If you find the right people who would be committed, there’s so much talent in the poor. It’s a goldmine of talent and heart,” Pinky said.

All it takes is a little digging and a lot of faith. ###

***All photos by Ram Lee.



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