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The coop that helps to weave dreams

A cooperative in the Philippines goes beyond lending money to indigenous people – it equips them with the skills they need to improve their businesses.

Feature | 08 August 2012
LAKE SEBU, Mindanao, Philippines (ILO News) – Subi Nalon, 75 weaves dreams. Thousands of strands of fiber from the abaca leaf become an intricate pattern of t’nalak, a cloth that symbolizes the cultural heritage and collective subconscious of the T’boli ethnic tribe.

Legend has it that the goddess Fu Dalu taught t’nalak weaving in a dream. To this day, the weavers are said to come up with the patterns in their sleep.

The T’boli traditionally used t’nalak for weddings and births, but many women like Nalon now weave cloths to be sold as souvenirs in the shape of bags, hats or wallets.

“It’s the most magnificent thing I’ve seen. I haven’t come across anything like it in my travels,” says an American tourist visiting the souvenir shop of the Cooperative of Women in Health and Development (COWHED) in the quiet lakeside town where Nalon’s wares are sold.

The T’boli women of Lake Sebu town, one of the poorest on the island of Mindanao, have realised that t’nalak weaving and other indigenous handicraft – embroidery, brass ornaments and beadwork – can help uplift their economy and improve their lives.
We trained them in entrepreneurship and to put value on their labour and skills”

Nalon and her neighbours used to produce and sell the crafts individually, a practice that did not earn them much. Things changed when COWHED stepped in.

The cooperative partnered with the ILO, the Embassy of Finland in Manila and the Philippines’ National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, to reduce poverty and promote human rights among indigenous peoples, notably by improving employment opportunities through traditional livelihoods.

The only women-managed cooperative in Lake Sebu, COWHED has 217 members who have taken out loans ranging from 2,000 to 19,900 pesos (US$47 to 469) to help them start their businesses. A member who has repaid the loan can request a bigger amount.

The multipurpose cooperative does not just lend money to members like Nalon. It also equips them with the proper skills to help them improve their businesses.

Growing beyond the cooperative world

“We trained them in entrepreneurship and to put value on their labour and skills,” says Gemma Galor, COWHED’s microfinance manager.

“Traditionally, T’bolis use the barter system. They tend to price their items very low because they would only compute their expenses and put a small mark-up, without really factoring the hard work that goes into production.” When she joined the cooperative, Nalon got a starting loan of 3,000 pesos that helped her buy rolls of abaca fibre, string, and fabric dye.

She learned to cost her products during the entrepreneurship training. Her t’nalak now sells for 300 to 800 pesos a meter. She supplies COWHED, as well as private buyers from Manila.

Nalon’s and the other women’s goods are sold at the COWHED shop – a bamboo hut on stilts built T’boli style – that draws an average of 30 visitors a week.

COWHED also runs a small savings programme. Its forced savings programme sets aside a portion of the members’ earnings into an account they can access in case of emergencies. Going to a regular bank is not an option for many, as the nearest one requires long land travel.

Though primarily a cooperative for women, COWHED has extended its savings programme to male clients, including drivers of motorcycle taxis – the most popular form of transportation in the rocky, mountainous areas. Galor says one driver has a savings account of 17,000 pesos ($400), while others have managed to buy their own motorcycle to start a business.

“We’re happy that our members have been able to improve their lives. But what’s important is that the women now see the value and beauty in their traditional skills,” says Galor.

In February 2012, the ILO and the Embassy of Finland agreed to increase the support to indigenous peoples. Under the agreement, the ILO will draw lessons of good practice from its partnership with indigenous peoples in the Philippines since the early 1990s.

By Kara Santos/IPS Asia-Pacific reporter