We are blessed to find a partner community in Panamao, Sulu headed by the enterprising Princess Kumalah Sug-Elardo. When I met her in December 2011 and found out she had picked only the best coffee in her area, we wasted no time in checking the place and finding ourselves in Sulu the month after.
As she delivered her coffee to us in nice little baskets, I asked her where she got the baskets from. She replied: “Bicol!” Oh my gosh, the basket travels from Bicol to Sulu, then she puts in the coffee bag, and the pack travels from Sulu to Manila via boat or plane to Zamboanga and then to our store in Serendra.
No way will I help her increase the carbon footprint of this “picked red,” washed coffee. Instead we mustered enough guts to submit a proposal to Telus International Community Board for a grant to train young girls in basket making. The raw materials were available in Sulu: pandan, nipa, nito, name it they have it. What they lacked is the skill to make these coffee baskets.
When Telus International, a Canadian company, approved the grant Jeannie Javelosa of ECHOsi Foundation went to work. She recruited two trainors from Leyte, one of the areas of our Great Women Project with CIDA and Philippine Commission on Women. And the trainors, two women, flew to Manila to catch a Zamboanga flight where the training was to be done.
At the time the trainors arrived in Zamboanga there was a security problem in Sulu and 30 young girls would be insecure to travel via night boat to meet their trainors in Zamboanga City. Instead, Princess called us to clear that she would instead bring our two women trainors to Panamao and conduct the training in situ.
When the trainors arrived in Panamao, they were in awe. They initially thought they like many small women producers were dirt poor. Until they saw their Sulu trainees and the conditions they lived in. That set the stage for the two-day experience the trainors will never forget. For 48 hours, they worked day and night with the aid of a generator (donated by kindred souls from the MAP ABCD Foundation). And what was so amazing is that even the older women and men wanted to learn how to weave baskets.
A father of one child told Princess that if he and his wife and their daughter could weave three baskets each a day, they could finish nine baskets and have enough to buy rice, which they do not eat everyday. What a treat!
Today, Princess has trained not only the 30 young women, but their fathers and mothers as well. I kidded her that we may have more baskets than we can use or sell. But she is one who is even more optimistic than me. She said they could make different sizes, different weaves and styles.
So, starting a few months ago, Princess started to use the baskets made by her young girls in the community in faraway Kandayok, Panamao, Sulu. We had good reviews at the store and even plan on bigger styles in time for Christmas gift giving.
What started as a supply challenge became an opportunity for her community members. The trainors enjoyed their training so much, they look forward to a Phase 2 of the project. And maybe teach more women and girls the art of weaving, a skill slowly disappearing in many cultural communities.
The baskets can hold coffee, rice, sugar and many other heavy merchandise you can think of. Princess is also exploring the addition of trim made from Pis Syabit—the weave her Tausug tribe is known for. After all, Sulu Royal coffee (which is what she calls her brew), must use royal cloth to decorate its packaging and preserve its traditions and indigenous culture.
Princess has engaged almost 13,000 beneficiaries in the harvest of “pick red” coffee from Panamao and its surrounding barangays. She will be needing a lot of baskets to package the coffee in. And her community is the most excited group as they cheer her on to makePanamao known as the birthplace of good, select Sulu coffee.
What started as a small project of gathering civet coffee has turned this sleepy village into a coffee capital of sorts . . . but of properly harvested, quality washed coffee.
Thank you, Princess Lalah, for keeping the faith and helping us grow and sell more coffee. And for accommodating these trainors who are training your community members.
What training will come next? Coffee roasting maybe?
Chit Juan is a founder and owner of ECHOStore sustainable lifestyle, ECHOmarket sustainable farms and ECHOcafe in Serendra , Podium and Centris QC malls. She also is President of the Women’s Business Council of the Philippines and President of the Philippine Coffee Board Inc., two non-profits close to her heart. She often speaks to corporates, youth and NGOs on social entrepreneurship, women empowerment, and coffee. You can follow her on twitter.com/chitjuan or find her on facebook:Pacita “Chit” Juan. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org