Imagining a role for microenterprises through the Economy of Communion approach

by Tess Ganzon

The EOC was launched in 1991 by Chiara Lubich, foundress of the Focolare Movement, a global movement for unity – for its members to start new enterprises or re-orient existing ones, so that profits could be destined for the needs of the marginalized in society, invested in structures that would dedicate themselves to the spread of a new culture in economy , as well as for the expansion of the business so it could provide more service, more employment, share more profits – all in a virtuous cycle. Bangko Kabayan, as a consequence, decided to expand its operations, adopt new products and take a more aggressive approach to transforming the bank into an engine for growth, particularly of the business sector in the region of Southern Luzon.

Aside from branching out in different municipalities of the region, in the following years after 1991, the bank re-branded (from Ibaan Rural Bank to Bangko Kabayan), adopted a clearer Vision and Mission statement which it endeavored to carry out in its subsequent business plans, and focused its service offerings for what it discovered to be the market it was called to serve – the micro, small and medium enterprises or MSMEs.

We offered microfinance in 2001 and were convinced that supporting this sector would have the development impact we desired – increased household incomes, increased employment, greater rural women empowerment, better education opportunities for the youth and other ancillary benefits for the greater number of people in the countryside. Thus we not only offered loans for business capital but coupled them with educational loans for the children, micro-housing or improvement loans that enabled clients to improve their homes, one room at a time, micro-insurance to mitigate devastating effects of emergency health setbacks and deaths in the family, micro loans for safe, affordable clean water. Plus of course, a savings program that showed the largely women clients they were indeed capable of saving – small amounts but regularly and faithfully deposited in the bank – giving them more confidence and a sense of power over their own lives which they did feel previously. 

More than just a financial product, we saw that microfinance could serve as a vehicle for social transformation, especially the Grameen-replication model that called for organizing the women into groups which would meet weekly, share their triumphs and difficulties both in their small businesses and ,of course, in their families as well. Through weekly meetings, the women’s understanding that they were responsible for each other increased. Their joint collection and management of a small development fund they built for themselves (aside from individual savings) – contributed to the formation of a culture of trust, transparency, generosity, empathy and solidarity  – all of which are values underlying the Economy of Communion. 

But its not just in the group meetings that one can observe a different business culture among the microentrepreneurs. 

Reynante and Racquel Manimtim left low-paying jobs in Manila to return to their provincial roots and try to make a better living there. Beginning with P1000 ($20) in their pocket, they lived in a structure a little better than a garage, began a small livelihood by making and selling common street food – fishballs, cheese sticks, etc going from house to house, on foot. But the business was slow and soon they were down to their last $2. Summoning his last ounce of courage Reynante went to the market to buy $1.50 of bananas, barbecue sticks for $.10 and spent the rest on transportation fare. They sold everything…and went on from there, rolling their capital, selling hotdogs, sandwiches, spaghetti… Soon they learned about the microfinance program of the bank and began borrowing small amounts ($400-500) to buy their first food cart, to enable them to sell to a larger customer base. (Current loan is about $3200.)

Racquel narrates: “As soon as we felt our lives ease up – and even while we were still paying off loans we had incurred to grow the business, we looked around and began reaching out, first to family members who were in need (for one, start-up capital for a small store, for another a steady job, still another help to continue studying) and sharing our blessings with them. 

Today, Rey and Racquel employ at least 20 people – earning the legal minimum wage plus sales incentive, enabling them to likewise pull themselves out of poverty, along with their families. The Christmas celebration which they started initially with 50 poor children in the neighborhood, now embraces, not only the families of all the workers but each family may bring 5 additional children who they feel would otherwise not experience the joy of a Christmas celebration. And slowly, the culture of generosity touches the lives of people and spreads.

They eat all together as one family on week-ends. They share stories not only of sales but of family, lives, relationships. Reynante and Racquel continue to inspire them “Work hard, be kind, trust in God!”

They have likewise helped other neighbors grow their own food cart businesses, generously providing them with advice on how to succeed. And when one of them wanted to strike on his own, the couple not only helped him with providing him his cart on credit – but even the route he was already plying and familiar with.

In another town, another couple making candies in the neighborhood and who succeeded in expanding their microenterprise, takes in workers not from the area but from more depressed neighboring provinces, providing food, shelter and allowances enough to send to their families left behind. Describing his working relationship with them, WiIfredi Dagame says when he thinks of a new product, he makes a sample, asks his workers to taste the candy, discusses with them what is lacking or too much in the taste…and even deciding together what they can call that new candy product. Of course, everyone takes pride and develops independence in making the products, meeting commitments to buyers, even while the head of the enterprise needs to be elsewhere. 

Also he trains generously and encourages the young boys working with him to dream bigger, to prepare to be on their own someday and not be always a worker for somebody else. To help them strike out on their own, he provides the initial batch of ingredients for candy-making. After awhile, he stumbled on a model for expanding his marketing reach through support of independent producers he had trained and supports through provision of wholesale ingredients and who then set up shop in areas he cannot cover. 

These entrepreneurs never went to business school and maybe, did not even have enough resources to complete university. Their business acumen springs from instinct, experience and a wisdom anchored on relationships they have built with others all their lives. Their resilience is extraordinary, borne from having had to deal with difficulties themselves for much of their lives.

And maybe, just because they did not go to any business school, they never acquired the strong competitive spirit which oftentimes hinders businessmen from generously sharing know-how, tips for success – always with the fear that the one learning from them will do better. Or make him earn less because of competition he himself helped create. 

Among these microentrepeneurs, there is an almost total trust in the other, a generosity in sharing not only business profits but more significantly, business opportunities – to others around them who are more in need. Those who are employed reciprocate the other’s generosity by giving quality service and return the trust by faithfulness. Some venture out on their own, gratefully. Many are happy to just continue growing with an employer who has become family.

The microentrepreneurs do not fear competition and do not exhibit an accumulative nature so often identified with their bigger, richer counterparts – because they never lose track of their own humble beginnings. Or forget their own pains and deprivation. And since they attribute their small (and not so small) successes not only to their own hardwork and ingenuity, but always acknowledge something, Someone more working alongside them (whether they say its luck or God), they remain appreciative and humble. 

Businesses of Economy of Communion want to see their organizations become the beginning of communities imbued with these attitudes of service, integrity, reciprocity, trust – in their dealings not only with clients but with all stakeholders, including workmates, colleagues, government regulators, and the communities they operate in.  Working with microentrepreneurs, microenterprises, one sees that they are already living examples of such businesses at the service of others more in need, that they are capable of trust, especially if they have been trusted themselves by other institutions who lent them working capital and helped them along their path to stability and success – and that they are innately generous and forgiving, without being gullible. And while they may not be extremely competitive, it doesn’t mean they are not ambitious or have big dreams – not just for themselves but for all they have encountered, especially those who are travelling the road of growth together with them. 

In our country, and I suspect in most developing countries, microenterprises make up 97% of our economy. Imagine what our country might be like, should even half of these embrace these values of communion – leading the way to making not only the economy but society, more humane.

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