From civil engineer to abaca bag makerBy Myrna Rodriguez Co
Philippine Daily Inquirer
BULUA, Cagayan de Oro—At the peak of her career, Vivian Bandiola Libao, quit her high-paying job at Petron Corp. when her husband, Francis, joined the STEAG State Power Corp. in Misamis Oriental.
As she began to settle in Cagayan de Oro City with her young family, she had no inkling she was about to enter a field she never imagined venturing into.
The Bandiolas are originally from Bukidnon, a 1-1/2-hour bus ride from Cagayan de Oro, and Vivian studied BS Engineering at Cagayan de Oro College. Thus the move did not really disorient her, but finding her economic place in that city proved daunting—at first.
As a civil engineer, Vivian tried to apply for a position in engineering and construction firms in CDO. Invariably, she was turned down for being “overqualified.”
Providentially, her older sister Marilou de la Cruz, a handicraft entrepreneur, asked Vivian if she wanted to take over the business she had begun to weary of.
Vivian could have it lock, stock and barrel, if she wanted, Marilou offered.
Vivian accepted the offer cautiously. It was after, all, her first foray into entrepreneurship. She began a crash program on handicraft production, mentored by her sister.
Marilou also introduced her to her business network that included officers, experts and advisers of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and PhilExport.
Vivian named her business Puyo Handicraft, which means bag or bayong in the native dialect. To be sure, more than 80 percent of her products are native bags—fashion bags, functional bags. The rest are decorative items, pillow cases, abaca flowers, placemats and trays, stools and jelly bags.
She sources her materials from the tribal women of Bukidnon, famous for weaving native hinabol fabrics from abaca fiber. Without them, there is no Puyo Handicrafts, Vivian asserts.
Traditionally farmers, these women used to weave only as a sideline. With constant orders from Vivian and other handicraft producers, weaving eventually became their main livelihood.
Her rapport with the women—her being able to communicate with them in their native dialect—gives her an edge, she thinks.
“They listen to me when I suggest improvements in quality and measurements and when I tell them how important it is to keep delivery timetables,” she says.
Vivian taught the weavers innovations in the dyeing process, including how to make colors consistent. She would ask them to estimate the amount of dyeing materials for a given batch of woven fabrics, “because they will never get the exact shade when they repeat the process.”
She explains that while there is a formula followed, there are so many factors that can influence the color, including weather conditions and how and where they wash the fabric after dyeing.
In turn, Vivian makes it a point to listen to the weavers. “When you try to help them solve their problems, both production and personal, you also benefit.”
Hinabol uses the ikat weave, where the warp, weft or both are dyed before weaving to create designs on the fabric. The combination of colors results in vivid, colorful monochromatic patterns.
She lets the women weavers do as they have done for generations because, after all, what they do is ethnic, traditional.
While there is no shortage of women weavers, the supply of abaca can run scarce.
Customarily, tribal folks would gather abaca from the forest, harvesting what happened to grow in the wild. Thus, during a drought, there is no harvest.
The problem prompted the Fiber Industry Development Authority (FIDA) to put up abaca plantations in Mindanao for the first time.
Vivian supported the campaign. She joined the group that went around talking with the chieftains in the hinterland tribes to cooperate with the project.
Today, the abaca plantations are thriving and Mindanao is now the No. 1 supplier of abaca in the country, edging out Bicol where plantations are being plagued by a viral disease.
She makes her own designs, inspired by what she sees in the Internet and in trade fairs.
She also sometimes uses designs from clients. For example, the DTI ordered note pad holders for an EAGA conference, providing the design.
At first, orders were sparse, coming only from end users.
A breakthrough for Puyo Handicrafts took place in 2006 when the National Convention of Philippine Nurses Association was hosted by Cagayan de Oro.
Puyo was asked to supply 3,000 conference bags.
More orders followed. Vivian found herself supplying bags in conventions after conventions. Personal orders, some of them in bulk, came from nurses who attended the conference and liked the bags.
Familiar with fair trade shops, Vivian got in touch with stores in CDO, Bohol and Cebu and was able to book orders.
Internet savvy, she put up the Puyo Handicrafts website. Puyo is also on Twitter and Facebook. From such online presence, she found markets in the United States and Brunei.
Still catering to conventions, she expects an order from the Philippine Medical Association for 3,500 pieces of conference bags, which she plans to subcontract partly to the 11-member Misamis Oriental Multi-Fiber Cluster Inc., of which Vivian is president.
On the market outlook, she says it’s good that Filipinos have become environment-conscious and begun to develop a preference for things natural and eco-friendly.
(Puyo Handicrafts is among enterprises to be featured in a forthcoming book on “Product Strategies among Micro and Small Businesses” to be published by the Small Enterprises Research and Development Foundation (SERDEF). For more entrepreneurial stories and starting-and-improving-a-business how-to’s, visit the SERDEF website at www.serdef.org.)
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