Upcycling initiative launched for women-led businesses in coastal communities



DAUIN, NEGROS ORIENTAL — Every day, Rebecca wakes up at dawn and heads to the community well to collect water for the island’s households. Her wooden cart (kariton) is loaded with up to a dozen gallons of water which she pushes along the island’s broken road.

It is tough work for meager pay. When she is not fetching water, she is busy washing bed linens and clothes. Through all this hard work, she is able to support her husband, feed her family, and send her kids to school.

Rebecca lives on Apo island. Located in Central Visayas, Apo island is a marine biodiversity hotspot, and its coral reefs are famous worldwide. Tens of thousands of tourists visit the island each year and swim with the resident sea turtles.

A view of the sea turtle tourism interaction area in Apo Island.

Despite the increase in tourism, the economic windfall has been unequal. The majority of tourist dollars are spent in the resorts along the coast of Dauin, a short boat ride away from Apo island. 

Opportunities are particularly scarce for women like Rebecca. Age-old traditions are often limiting their role to housework, cooking, and laundry. More lucrative options like fishing or guiding tourists is not an option on Apo where women are prohibited from fishing or guiding tourists.

Unfortunately, Rebecca is not alone. Across the Philippines, women in coastal communities often face barriers to work. Tradition and lack of institutional support limit their ability to pursue economically productive endeavors.

Worsening these circumstances has been the ongoing pandemic which has hit coastal communities particularly hard. The correlated sudden drop in coastal tourism has threatened livelihoods, particularly those of women. 

The women who participated in the first Tagpi-Tagpi sustainable entrepreneurship workshop in Apo Island along with the Cebu Eco Fix Owner Alieth Bontuyan (top left, blue shirt).

Mary Jane Lamoste, an East-West Center 2020 Innovation Fellow, learned about this reality while living on Apo Island to study the resident sea turtles. A soft-spoken marine biologist by training, Mary Jane took a break from her research to attend a leadership training at the Center through the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) in 2018.

In her free time, Mary Jane began making plush-toys or ‘stuffed animals’ out of recycled denim jeans that could be sold to friends and tourists. She hoped upcycling denim jeans into plush-toys could also promote sustainable consumption and production.

Eventually, women like Rebecca began to join her. In 2019, Mary Jane formed Tagpi-Tagpi, a social impact initiative to produce, market, and sell the upcycled denim plush-toy turtles. The name is a Filipino word for patching things together.

“The purpose of Tagpi-Tagpi is to show these women a way out of this situation through micro-entrepreneurship”, says Mary Jane.

Participating women are checking their handmade upcycled stuff toys.

“We pay the women on a per-piece basis, and we facilitate the distribution of the finished product. As the business matures, we aim to connect them directly to the retailers and have them run the business themselves.”

Tagpi-Tagpi aims to increase the entrepreneurial skills, income, and social status of the women of Apo Island. In addition, the organization hopes to increase the number of businesses owned by women in trained communities and increase sustainable consumption and production patterns in trained communities.

Tagpi-Tagpi also integrates successful women entrepreneurs and invites them to workshops to inspire the women in these coastal communities who often lack women role models. The hope is that hearing the personal experience of entrepreneurs can ignite inspiration for the women.

“When we see successful entrepreneurs, we don’t see the hustle and the bustle behind it. We have this perception that they are better than us and we want to change that,” says Mary Jane.

One of the first upcycled sea turtle handmade prototypes by the women of Apo Island

However, Tagpi-Tagpi is working with local and international partners to expand the distribution of its products further, harnessing the power of e-commerce to secure much-needed financial income for these communities.

As for Mary Jane, she has reconnected with the East-West Center seeking support customized to this stage of her career journey. As a non-resident EWC Innovation Fellow, she will receive the crucial financial and strategic support to grow Tagpi-Tagpi. In 2020, 10 non-resident fellows will co-design and co-deliver innovation initiatives with the EWC’s Professional Development Program in their sector (eg. health, environment, arts, resilience). All fellows are EWC/PDP Associates between the ages of 25-40 and leading their own company or organization.

“There is an opportunity for these women to elevate their social position by supporting their communities during this crisis. This crisis may prove to be an important catalyst for a shift in mindset for the community and provide the women with the confidence they need to be more entrepreneurial.”

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  1. […] of fish, composed of small fishes such as sapsap, danggit, and kabayad, had been collected by the residents living near the coastal area of Barangay […]

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