More Than Just A Store: PHILIA's Mission to Empower Filipino Communities
PHILIA is an enterprise that sells a wide variety of organic, natural, and handmade products from the Philippines in different channels particularly online, B2B and Retail. They responsibly source their products from smallholder communities, farmers, indigenous people, and small-scale producers and trade with them at fair-trade rates. PHILIA is committed to sustainable and ethical practices. They use packaging that is recyclable or compostable. With that in mind, why don’t you join me in learning more about PHILIA with its President and Co-Founder, Roma Padua.
Could you tell us about your background and what inspired you to pursue the path of inclusive progress and sustainable development?
By profession, I am really an accountant. But my training has been in development. That is why I took my Master's in Development Management because that's really the mission I have in life. I have a strong background in business. The reason why I was with sustainability is because from the nature of my corporate work to humanitarian development, the intercept has always been mother nature. There's no business that can thrive without nature. There’s no social development that will last without taking into consideration the impacts that we create in our environment.
I decided that if I'm going to create a business, it should not be “business as usual” wherein the corporation doesn’t care about its environmental impacts. And so the best outlet is to create a social enterprise that doesn't only support the marginalized communities, but also equally protects the environment. It’s also about allowing the next generation to enjoy the resources we enjoy today. If the whole reason why our resources disappear was because of unethical businesses, then people just lack empathy for what allows us to live and breathe. These are the things that PHILIA is attempting to change and to act on them.
Can you share the inspiration behind starting PHILIA and the vision you had for the company from the beginning? And how has PHILIA differentiated itself from other stores in the same industry?
The initiative was built more as a movement. ‘Philia’ is the Latin term for ‘Friendship love, a Brother's Keeper’. This is because we are a social enterprise that was built primarily to address the problems caused by the pandemic and then also to support those that are struggling, particularly the smallholder farmers in the uplands. My inspiration in starting PHILIA was the people from my province, Sultan Kudarat, because I thought I was blessed enough to change my life and to explore the world. But this was a different story for the indigenous people in my province. When they reached out to us for market access, the default was to give them free business consulting or business coaching services, but they're off the grid which will make it more challenging.
During the pandemic, the social distancing just made it more difficult to teach them. I realized that I cannot coach these communities to be business people because for one, I have to acknowledge their lack of formal education. For instance, they will never understand some of the math terms or the jargon in business. Second is I have to address the limitations that we have. That is the distance, the signal, and the different restrictions imposed by the pandemic. With that in mind, the best way to help them is to give them tasks which they are already good at, such as producing and processing. On the other end, I do the tasks which I think will benefit them in the long run, that would be marketing, branding, telling the story, and then linking them to the market and partners. That's why I established PHILIA because that's our why. Our plan has always been to enable smallholder farmers, that's who we are, a Brother'sKeeper.
What are some of the challenges you faced in the initial stages of establishing the enterprise, and how did you overcome them to achieve the success you have today?
Number one would be restriction during the pandemic. We heavily relied on online communication to reach the farmers. The signal in the farms were very weak, especially they're located in the mountains. Our main form of communication was through Zoom or chatting online, both of which required internet connection. Since the signal was very weak for them, delay in communication was inevitable.
Second is processing (roasting) the food. For example, coffee Farmers started hand-roasting coffee weighing at most 5 kg and using only a small pan. This made orders very limited and caused delays.
Third would be that we had to be intentional about the communities we would partner with since our budget was limited. We couldn’t just partner with any community, we needed to partner with those who we believed needed us and our help. These are the farmers who were not reached by the services of government agencies. Since they remained unreachable even by the government, this made it more challenging for us to reach them.
Fourth was building the trust of our partner communities. It was difficult to gain and build the trust of these communities since they didn’t know anything about us prior. They were basically trusting a stranger and had to communicate with them kilometers away from their villages just to get a signal. Lastly, I think their biggest challenge is learning from us. A number of them did not receive quality education and are mostly isolated from the rest of the world. They found it difficult to adjust and adapt, most especially to technology. We really struggled with these problems, we reached our peak in the pandemic.
Fortunately, when restrictions were lifted, all these burdens were eased. We were able to go up to the farms and bring necessary equipment and supplies for the farmers. We taught them how to price their products and taught them the basics of business. We were able to partner with government agencies to give them the help we needed, especially key quality practices and small equipment.
Going back to my previous answer, making PHILIA profitable for us and these farmers really revolved around how we could generate market acceptance for their products — and not just use emotional appeal to customers, which in the long run is definitely not sustainable.
What are some of the key factors that have contributed to the sustainable growth and success of the company, and how do you plan to maintain this trajectory in the coming years?
First would be the commitment. We're doing this because we're committed no matter how challenging it is. That’s the same language we have with the community, our development partners, and then us. Second would be collaboration. It’s very important to acknowledge our strengths, but at the same time it is also important to acknowledge our weaknesses. It’s never wrong to ask for help. If there’s a strong and collaborative spirit, there is no barrier to collaboration. Our partners and community members will not be afraid to tell us what they need, and we will not hesitate to give these things to them. Lastly, competence. At the end of the day, nobody will buy a product just because they are made by the smallholder farmers. Whatever product we put out is made of love, and if it's made of love it has to be excellent. That’s why we have quality and operational protocols. We are really strict with the quality of our products since we want our partner communities to feel proud that people are purchasing from them because of high quality.
Competence really empowers us to be the best not only for our customers but to our partner communities as well. We are proud to say that we won 2 medals for having the best coffee in the world for our two origins in Sultan Kudarat in our two towns. Having one of these medals in a matter of two years, showcases how competent our partner communities are.
Roma Padua is the President and Co-Founder of PHILIA. Roma provides the company with leadership, vision, strategic planning, and business development among many others. She is instrumental in driving the mission of PHILIA, to enable smallholder farmers and give them sustainable livelihoods. As seen in Roma, she is incredibly empowered in alleviating the lives of neglected and marginalized farming communities, most especially in her province of Sultan Kudarat. Through this, she hopes to expand and help all farming communities across the Philippines.
Visit www.techshake.asia if you would like to know and connect more with PHILIA.