KUALA LUMPUR — Johnson Acdang stood confidently before a crowd of at least 700, among them Malaysian business leaders, experts from the academe and development workers.
In his neatly pressed white polo shirt, he greeted the crowd in French, English and Bahasa Malaysia and began his talk on social entrepreneurship.
“I never thought everything would come to this,” Aclang later told the Inquirer.
Not too long ago, the 20-year-old Kankanaey left Baguio City after his parents gave up on supporting his studies and that of his five siblings.
Moving from place to place, from Nueva Ecija province to Nueva Vizcaya, Acdang supported himself by working as a slash-and-burn (kaingin) farmer, and managed to finish high school at the Kalahan Academy, a school for indigenous peoples in Nueva Vizcaya.
That would have been the end of it had he not met a group of missionaries in 2015 who introduced him to Gawad Kalinga’s (GK) School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development (Seed).
Recalled Aclang: “I didn’t really have much of a choice then. They offered me free education [and] free food.”
Seed is GK’s educational program on social entrepreneurship for the poor. Started in 2014, the program takes in young scholars to live and train at the GK Enchanted Farm, a 43-hectare housing community in Barangay Encanto in Angat town, Bulacan province.
The scholars are taught to develop and scale up business ideas meant to pluck them out of poverty. They are also taught English, French, mathematics, business and agriculture subjects during a two-year intensive training broken down into 54 hours of classes a week.
Most importantly, they are taught character building, according to Seed leader and head teacher Mark Lawrence Cruz.
Described as a “farm village university,” GK aims to raise a new generation of social entrepreneurs under the Seed program.
“Here, people are not working for a diploma but for a business registration with their names on it,” Cruz said. “[The poor] have dreams but they just can’t articulate it. Our job is to articulate [their dreams].”
Currently, Seed has 106 scholars with at least eight of their products out in the market soon.
One such brand is Oh GK!, an oregano-based drink developed by Acdang and another scholar, Danilo Ablen, 21. With support from private investors, the pair started producing 6,000 bottles a month, which quickly doubled in number on the second year of production.
Unlike Acdang who was working as a kaingin farmer when he was introduced to GK , Ablen’s family was plucked off the streets in Baliwag town, Bulacan.
They were living under a bridge then, Ablen recalled, and often had to scavenge for leftover food from restaurants. “I had to steal and at one point, considered selling my body,” he said.
Aside from the oregano-based drink, the Enchanted Farm also sells hand-stitched stuffed toys, bags, pastries and organic poultry and dairy products.
“The poor have small pockets, but they don’t have small brains,” said GK founder Antonio Meloto of the diverse merchandise and business ideas.
In a recent business forum, Meloto said social businesses were seen to grow three times faster than conventional ones in the next decade, with many of these ventures emerging from Southeast Asia.
But entrepreneurs have to strive for quality products that can compete in the global market to sustain their business, he said.
“We’re looking at the poor not as objects of pity, whose products people buy out of pity, because pity purchases are not sustainable,” he added.
People should “give [the poor] not charity but the right to be rich,” the GK founder said.
Added Meloto: “[Help them] unlearn what society has taught them: that [they’re] worthless and lazy. Make them learn how to find value in themselves.”
GK presented its template on the “farm village university” in a summit attended by top Malaysian nongovernment organizations at Berjaya Times Square on May 9.
Among GK’s partners are Malaysian tycoon and Berjaya Corp. Berhad founder Vincent Tan and Malaysian writer Shirley Maya Tan (the two are not related).
In search of life’s meaning, Shirley Tan, 47, and a scion of one of Malaysia’s wealthiest families, relocated to GK’s Enchanted Farm in 2015. She has since adopted 15 children from poor families.
Vincent Tan has been a GK partner for the last 10 years and has pledged to help build 5,000 houses for the poor after Tropical Storm “Sendong” (international name: Washi) hit the Philippines in 2011.
One of the world’s richest philanthropists, Tan, 65, committed to build with GK in Malaysia the first 100 houses, and plans to replicate the Seed program in his country.
“Wealthy people must be reminded that they became rich because of the community and their country that supported their business. I think it is their responsibility to give back to society,” Tan said.
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