The Philippine Star - - STARWEEK - By Bar­bara Cus­to­dio

IT’S THAT MOST WON-der­ful time of the year again. Christ­mas car­ols are play­ing, sparkling lights and color­ful or­na­ments dec­o­rate stores, houses and streets and there is that dis­tinc­tive nip in the air. For the Scrooges among us though, bah hum­bug – what’s the fuss? Work con­tin­ues.

Over in Ma­cabebe, Pam­panga, work in­deed con­tin­ues for Lea and her hus­band, who craft fig­urines of the Holy Fam­ily, Santo Niño and the Vir­gin Mary by hand. The “ber” months un­til the Holy Week is their busiest time.

In Christ­mases past, Lea’s hus­band was a full-time fish­er­man while she sold what­ever fish he would catch in the mar­ket. On a nor­mal day they earned 100 to P300, cer­tainly not enough for a cou­ple with three girls to bring up and school.

Their Christ­mas present is cer­tainly brighter. Work­ing with a mi­cro­fi­nance in­sti­tu­tion (MFI) which loaned Lea a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of her cap­i­tal, they built their busi­ness from scratch, and cus­tomers from as far away as Bataan, Laguna and Zam­boanga buy their re­li­gious fig­urines. With their sav­ings, they re­mod­eled their house, rais­ing the floor to re­duce flood­ing and build­ing a sec­ond story. Lea also bought their very own blue banca (ca­noe) for use dur­ing se­vere ty­phoons when the water level in their neigh­bor­hood reaches waist-high. Dur­ing such dis­as­ters, they can count on their part­ner MFI to im­me­di­ately come and dis­trib­ute re­lief goods.

Mean­while in Gu­bat, Sor­so­gon, Nora tends to her small shop filled with shell prod­ucts she cre­ated – chan­de­liers, wind chimes, parols, key chains, bracelets and decor items. The shop is lo­cated in Rizal Beach fac­ing the Pa­cific Ocean where one can spot surfers rid­ing the waves.

The shop used to be a tiny nipa hut with just a few prod­ucts for sale. Thanks to a loan from an MFI, Nora was able to ex­pand her prod­uct range. Busi­ness boomed and she saved enough to make im­prove­ments to her house. She built an ex­tra bed­room which she rents out to pass­ing trav­el­ers.

She dreams of some­day be­ing able to buy her own small lot, far away from the sea. She and her neigh­bours presently squat on land right be­side the sea, putting them in a pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion ev­ery time a ty­phoon whips up waves from the Pa­cific Ocean. Last De­cem­ber, close to Christ­mas Day, Ty­phoon Nona’s waves com­pletely swal­lowed her shop. Bowed but not beaten, Nora de­cided to re­build her shop with the help of a P25,000 loan from an MFI.

In Daraga, Al­bay, Je­susa is busy sketch­ing and mak­ing pat­terns for her var­i­ous abaca Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions. At an age when many women are re­tired, Je­susa keeps on go­ing. To­gether with her el­dest son, she pro­duces unique and high qual­ity abaca dec­o­ra­tions – Christ­mas wreaths, gar­lands, big Christ­mas balls, Santa in his sleigh pulled by rein­deer and Christ­mas tree shaped wall hang­ings.

Af­ter the Christ­mas sea­son, she will fo­cus on mak­ing birth­day (teddy bears) and wed­ding (hearts, swans, bride & groom) abaca prod­ucts. It’s hard to be­lieve that such el­e­gant abaca prod­ucts are cre­ated in such a sim­ple, dark and some­what clut­tered room pop­u­lated by a rooster bent on chas­ing me!

All of Je­susa’s hard work in this room has paid off. She has put her five chil­dren through school and is the proud mother of one teacher and one soon-to-be teacher. She

bought a tri­cy­cle for the fam­ily. She can af­ford to buy her main­te­nance medicine. Her nipa hut has been re­placed by a stur­dier ce­ment and wooden struc­ture. She is now sav­ing for her next project – to raise the floor of her work­room as it gets flooded dur­ing ty­phoons.

Over in Dap­i­tan street in Que­zon City, four women sell Christ­mas prod­ucts in a makeshift booth. Reena­lyn, Sherielyn, Mar­ilou and Ce­cille proudly dis­play their ba­hay ng be­len (na­tiv­ity house) which they con­struct on-thes­pot. They also sell Christ­mas wreaths, gar­lands, na­tiv­ity char­ac­ters, pa­pier mache Santa Clauses and fiber fig­urines such as an­gels, bal­leri­nas, dwarves, snow­men and san­tas. They can cus­tom­ize gar­lands and be­len houses based on clients’ re­quests.

Out­side of the Christ­mas sea­son, the four sell other stuff such as frozen food, fruits, clothes and what­ever else they can think of. The Christ­mas sea­son though is crit­i­cal for them. They earn most of their in­come for the year dur­ing this sea­son, with sav­ings to tide them over the slack months. Ev­ery­thing from their daily liv­ing ex­penses to their kids’ school ex­penses are rid­ing on this sea­son.

In San Fer­nando, Pam­panga, El­iz­a­beth and her hus­band are busy de­sign­ing and mak­ing

parols. Tra­di­tional parols along with their new best-sell­ing LED parols line the walls of their shop. When all the lan­terns are lit, it is a sight to be­hold.

The busi­ness was started by El­iz­a­beth’s hus­band 26 years ago, when he was still a bach­e­lor. Not hav­ing had the cap­i­tal to fund their busi­ness, they bor­rowed from loan sharks. The ex­ces­sively high in­ter­est rate charged by these in­for­mal lenders meant that at the end of the day, they had very lit­tle left.

Sev­eral years ago, El­iz­a­beth dis­cov­ered the ex­is­tence of MFIs which of­fered more rea­son­able lend­ing rates. They steadily grew their busi­ness and are now able to save more of their earn­ings, which has helped put their three kids through school. Dur­ing one rainy sea­son when their house got flooded, El­iz­a­beth had the sav­ings to meet this emer­gency. She is now work­ing with one par­tic­u­lar MFI to get a loan at even more favourable terms to build a toi­let.

Sep­a­rated by ge­og­ra­phy, these women nev­er­the­less share a com­mon back­ground: Fate dealt them a hard life. But un­like oth­ers con­tent to rely on and de­mand gov­ern­ment dole outs, these women took the ini­tia­tive, har­nessed their tal­ents and worked hard to lift them­selves out of poverty. They are all mi­cro en­trepreneur­s and clients of ASA Philip­pines Foun­da­tion, a non-profit in­sti­tu­tion spe­cial­iz­ing in mi­cro­fi­nance. Mi­crofi refers to an ar­ray of fi­nan­cial ser­vices, in­clud­ing un­col­lat­er­al­ized loans, sav­ings and in­sur­ance, which tar­get the en­ter­pris­ing poor whose fi­nan­cial needs are not served by tra­di­tional banks due to the higher risks in­volved. Self-em­ploy­ment is gen­er­ated amongst the poor, fam­ily in­come is in­creased and qual­ity of life is im­proved. Mi­cro­fi­nance is not sim­ply about pro­vid­ing fi­nan­cial ser­vices – it en­com­passes a broader per­spec­tive of so­cial de­vel­op­ment and poverty al­le­vi­a­tion.ASA Philip­pines Foun­da­tion, the coun­try’s largest mi­cro­fi­nance in­sti­tu­tion in terms of bor­row­ers and as­sets, was founded by in­dus­try vet­eran Kam­rul Tarafder and for­mer am­bas­sador to the Vat­i­can Howard Dee 12 years ago.

The Filipino and Ben­gali word “asa” means hope and the foun­da­tion stays true to its name by bring­ing hope to and up­lift­ing the lives of the very poor. With a loan port­fo­lio of 7.9 bil­lion and close to 6,000 em­ploy­ees spread over 850 branches na­tion­wide, it serves nearly 1.3 mil­lion un­der­priv­i­leged clients. To­day, it is the largest MFI not just in the Philip­pines but in South­east Asia and the Pa­cific. Last Au­gust, it was hon­ored as the Philip­pines’ most out­stand­ing mi­cro­fi­nance in­sti­tu­tion.

This Christ­mas, should you en­counter a Je­susa, a Reena­lyn, a Lea, an El­iz­a­beth or a Nora in your neigh­bor­hood, re­mem­ber that you can make a dif­fer­ence. You can help these hard­work­ing and ad­mirable peo­ple jour­ney into a blessed Christ­mas fu­ture.

Pho­tos by MICHAEL FAUSTO and ENGIMAR ESTOCHE Reena­lyn and her gar­lands and wreaths (top left); Nora in her shop of shell decor items (top right); El­iz­a­beth with parols all aglow (above).

Lea with a pa­rade of re­li­gious fig­urines (left); Je­susa shows off her abaca dec­o­ra­tions (right).

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