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Lifting Filipinos out of poverty by growing social entrepreneurship at home

January 21, 2014 at 6:27 PM EDT
Many Filipinos move into urban slums or leave their country in search of work. But to help lift his nation out of poverty, economist Antonio Meloto wants to turn its citizens into job generators rather than job seekers. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro profiles Meloto’s efforts to encourage businesses in rural areas.

GWEN IFILL: Next to the Philippines, where one organization is trying to tackle the nation’s poverty by luring people to the countryside.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro has the story, part of his ongoing Agents for Change series.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In a country that is rapidly urbanizing into ever more crowded cities, Tony Meloto is trying to get people to come or come back to the farm.

Well, where we’re going here rice and — organic rice. And we have 30 different crops here.

ANTONIO MELOTO, Enchanted Farm: Well, we’re growing here rice, organic rice, and we have 30 different crops here.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Three years ago, Meloto established an 85-acre campus about two hours from the capital, Manila. Called the Enchanted Farm, it’s a village of about 50 families relocated from urban slums, a farm and a place for research and innovation.

ANTONIO MELOTO: The vision is making this the Silicon Valley for agribusiness and social entrepreneurship.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: There’s lots of fertile land in the Philippines, Meloto says. It just doesn’t produce enough of the right crops and products, so rural people move to the city in search of a livelihood. Those who can leave the country, about 10 percent of this nation of 100 million — doctors, nurses, welders and domestic workers — work abroad.

ANTONIO MELOTO: So, how many of you are planning to leave the country after you graduate?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: An economist by training and one of the country’s best-known anti-poverty activists, Meloto tries to persuade young visitors to the farm to stay.

ANTONIO MELOTO: It is possible to create another career or business path in this country, rather than be a domestic worker abroad, which is not bad, because they are the heroes of the Philippines.  But I think the next generation like yours will be wealth creators in the Philippines and job generators, not job seekers abroad.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Meloto came from a lower-middle-class family, but, with scholarships, was a high academic achiever and went on to an international business career, including a posting in Australia. But he says he felt a keen awareness of those left behind.

ANTONIO MELOTO: I started to see that the basic problem was the disconnection of those privileged with the best education, with the best opportunities, from those who have no dignity, no justice, no hope. I felt that I had to go back to the Philippines, go to the poorest slum and try to discover my — myself.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He began in the mid-’90s by joining a lay Catholic organization, trying to forge a sense of community in slums riddled by gang violence.  A few years later, he founded Gawad Kalinga, or Giving Care, organizing mostly volunteers and focusing first on decent housing.

ANTONIO MELOTO: Because a human being who lives in an animal pen will think and behave like an animal, and when men are deprived of their dignity, then they are on a survival mode, and that’s when they get into gangs.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: To date, Gawad Kalinga has transformed the homes of 200,000 families, housing about a million people.

Residents build and maintain these small model communities, which elect their own leaders. These G.K. enclaves stand out for their cleanliness and bright colors, 2,000 across the Philippines, including some that were in the path of the recent Typhoon Haiyan.

Gawad Kalinga communities located in the path of the recent super typhoon did sustain some damage. There are roofs that are blown off, but for the most part the structures are still standing. The typhoon killed more than 6,000 people, but not a single one of them was in a Gawad Kalinga community.

ANTONIO MELOTO: We coordinate with the local government units, and they point us to where safe areas are.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Safe because they’re on higher ground. Gawad Kalinga also makes certain that occupants have clear legal title. It’s a key issue, says executive director Luis Oquinena.

JOSE LUIS OQUINENA, Gawad Kalinga: Because the poor rest here, they are — they are always victims.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He says slum dwellers are always vulnerable to eviction by natural disasters or people with more means who lay claim on their land.

Gawad Kalinga has never pays to acquire land for its communities. Instead, it convinces landowners to donate a part of their holdings, promising to work with the government to develop infrastructure, to everyone’s benefit.

JOSE LUIS OQUINENA: When you have a community of this size, government will start building those public roads. When you have those public roads and electricity, then obviously the land will appreciate.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That idea of partnership between haves and have-nots is behind the farm project as well, in this case to create socially minded businesses.

ANTONIO MELOTO: The combination of the genius of the poor and the rich is quite explosive.

Some of the earliest ones have been young Europeans, a toy maker working with local women and local materials, hoping to grow in a market where almost all toys are imported from China. Another enterprise is making a traditional lemongrass tea claimed to prevent certain diseases.

VAIMITI RIGAL, Philippines: Lemongrass is good for health, good for the blood system and also very tasty. And Tito Tony had the very good idea that this tea is very awesome, so why don’t we make it a worldwide product?

ANTONIO MELOTO: Lemongrass is antioxidant, and it is now selling about 50,000 bottles a month, and our target is a million bottles in a few years, which will provide jobs to 1,000 people.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Those with no business experience are coached on how to start one. A laid-off garment worker and a former domestic worker both refugees from Manila slums are being converted from traditional cooks to fast-food entrepreneurs. They hope to set up food stands like this one in shopping malls.

LOLITA BALDOZA, Philippines (through interpreter): I am really grateful to live here. Before this, I lived in Manila close to the river, and it flooded any time it rained hard. I was living like a squatter.

This is my little store.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: As she builds her food business, Lolita Baldoza sells convenience items from her home. Her husband, who works on the farm and cares for their two pigs, and their 12-year-old son enjoy a modest home, but it’s secure and dry.

LOLITA BALDOZA: We can sleep well. We can — my life here is very happy and happy, happy, yes.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Comfortable?

LOLITA BALDOZA: Comfortable.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: To sustain the farm, there’s a new conference center that Meloto hopes will bring visitors, ideas, and revenue. The complex was built with donations from several large companies like Shell Oil, and the carmaker Hyundai. It’s not charity, Meloto says, just good marketing.

ANTONIO MELOTO: This will be the venue for the National Youth Congress. This is sponsored by the Philippine armed forces.

So, General, these are the new generation of Filipinos.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: As the conference began, Meloto introduced four young people who’ve come to work on the farm. All are top graduates of prestigious universities — usually a ticket to far more lucrative jobs abroad.

Two actually returned from jobs overseas: market research in Singapore, investment banking in New York. Cherie Atilano passed up a Fulbright scholarship that would have taken her to Germany.

CHERIE ATILANO, college graduate: There’s a lot of hungry people in the Philippines, but knowing that we also have 12 million hectares of underproductive land, I’m so optimistic to really make the agriculture as a stable backbone of our economy.

ANTONIO MELOTO: This is a country that does not have any excuse to remain poor, and it is important for us now to raise a new generation of Filipinos who will have that kind of conviction.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Gawad Kalinga hopes to develop several more farm campuses like this one. Its goal is to bring five million families out of poverty by 2024.