Building enterprises and self-esteem at the Philippines’ Enchanted Farm

BY Fred de Sam Lazaro  January 21, 2014 at 2:04 PM EST
Antonio "Tony" Meloto, founder of Gawad Kalinga, is seen here with children in the Pinagsama village in Taguig city, Philippines. Photo courtesy of Gawad Kalinga.

Antonio “Tony” Meloto, founder of Gawad Kalinga, is seen here with children in the Pinagsama village in Taguig city, Philippines. Photo courtesy of Gawad Kalinga.

ANGAT, Philippines — To Antonio “Tony” Meloto, migration is both culprit and symptom of the entrenched poverty in the Philippines. It is a poverty of self-esteem as much as anything material, he adds.

Migration of rural people to urban slums, which includes Filipinos from every walk of life from doctors to domestic workers to wealthier countries, disrupts the lives of millions of families and drains the country of talent that is much needed here and under-appreciated abroad, says the 64-year-old former Procter and Gamble executive and founder of Gawad Kalinga, one of this country’s best-known nongovernmental organizations.

“Build the Filipino dream, not some other country’s dream!” he exhorts a group of college students on a field trip to the Enchanted Farm, a rural project intended to reverse the migration trend and close the widening urban-rural wealth gap. An economist by training, Meloto wants to bring together talent groomed by the best universities and wisdom rooted in the traditional rural lifestyles to create new businesses and products: bottling of a traditional lemongrass tea, for example, or turning talented traditional cooks into fast food entrepreneurs.

“The combination of the genius of the poor and the rich is quite explosive,” Meloto told me, explaining that “rich” in this context means people given the opportunities and privilege of a good education.

Ironically, some of the earliest “rich” partners to come to the farm project are migrants to the Philippines. Most are recent graduates from top European universities where Meloto lectures frequently. To attract more of their Filipino counterparts to follow suit is a challenge in a country where salaries cannot compete with those in wealthier nations, where a job overseas is considered a ticket to financial security.

Meloto says poverty in the Philippines is not just an economic issue but a behavioral one, the result of 350 years of Spanish, the American colonialism, “of us thinking we’re not white enough and us believing we are not smart enough.”

One symptom of the latter is the pervasive use of skin whiteners in the Philippines today.

“You should be happy with your skin color,” he continued to the young collegians, gently ribbing one young man for his spiked blond dye job. “Don’t show the world that God made a mistake when he made you Filipino. ”

Slowly the message is getting across, Meloto says, pointing proudly to four high achievers from top Philippines universities who have decided to forge their careers at the farm project. Two of them returned from overseas, like Frank Chu, 32, who left a job at Citibank in New York.

“I realized that if I become very successful but my country’s still poor, I’ll always be treated by other countries as second class, ” he says. ” So I decided to go back and look for a way to help.”

Joni Morales, 31, returned from a market research job in Singapore in pursuit of a long sought career with a nongovernmental agency, one that she says gets away from the traditional charitable top-down approach to development.

Working with people who have no dreams — the poor who have never been allowed to dream and the wealthy who “do not have dreams beyond themselves” — has been challenging, she says. But the farm is “a medium for us to find exactly as purpose and direction in our life.”

Meloto hopes to install 24 Enchanted Farms across the Philippines some day, the foundation he’s convinced for building the new Filipino dream.

Watch for Fred de Sam Lazaro’s upcoming broadcast report on the PBS NewsHour, and view more of our Social Entrepreneurship profiles.