Weaving Dreams In Sibaltan

(Ayala Foundation helps a community embrace change)

Sibaltan used to be a sleepy village by the sea in the eastern part of El Nido, Palawan. But now, it is waking up to increased economic activity. Among those contributing to the growth is a bold band of women weavers who have not only scaled up their craft but also their dreams.

When the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued the Sibaltan Women Weavers Association Inc. (SWWAI) their certificate of incorporation in November last year, no one could be happier than Melodiya “Diay” Bantog, a 37-year-old Palaweña who is the group’s president since 2013.

Diay and her team had been struggling to complete documentation requirements so they could operate commercially and scale up a livelihood enterprise on which they pinned most of their hopes. The hurdle especially for small groups filing for registration at the SEC has been higher following the Napoles controversy, which affected the governance outlook of nongovernmental organizations in the country.

In March this year, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) finally issued SWWAI their certificate of registration so they can operate as an independent business entity. Now that SWWAI is allowed to do business, while issuing their very own official receipt, Diay and her team feel they had won half the battle.

Now more confident with training and marketing exposure, the Sibaltan women are more excited to make future plans and thankful that all throughout their rather difficult journey, Ayala Foundation held their hands.

Weaving as part of Sibaltan cultural heritage

In this idyllic farming and fishing community, weaving is a skill that is passed on from generation to generation. People take pride in the fact that their roofs and walls are the work of their hands. They weave almost everything. Thus, in a typical household, it is not unusual to see menfolk, farmers and fishermen in particular, doing their share of weaving when they come home from the sea or farm.

The Sibaltan women weavers started as a small group in 2000. Through the Department of Social Welfare and Development, they underwent training to supply a single buri bag design for giveaways in El Nido’s resorts.

In 2008, Macrina “Nay Macring” Gacasa became president and by that time, the group already had 57 members, and had since woven buri-pandan bags, wallets, baskets or bayongs, slippers, and mats for the local market.

But still, it was difficult for them to make both ends meet as their market was limited to Palawan. While their artisanship is evident in the work that they do, they lacked the vision to drive the business further.

In April 2013, Ayala Foundation started working with SWWAI and was instrumental in the group’s collective decision to move forward with another able leader. While Nay Macring was still acknowledged as the best weaving teacher in the group, she selflessly ceded leadership to Diay Bantog. The foundation considered this move as proof that the group was ripe for more focused intervention and ready for bigger opportunities.

Building confidence and skills with Ayala Foundation

Ayala Foundation Program Manager Chiara Cruza observed how the hard-working Palaweñas sun-dried leaves from buri and pandan for two days before they made simple but durable products out of them. The women did this only as a part-time undertaking to help augment their respective family’s income.

Chiara Cruza (center), Ayala Foundation program manager, with members of the Sibaltan Women Weavers Association while they were undergoing training with The Leather Collection

Sadly, Chiara also realized that whatever the women earned out of weaving will never be enough to feed their families nor send their children to school, that is, if they continued to do things in the old, familiar way.

Under a new leader and now committed to change, Chiara introduced SWWAI to Rag to Riches (R2R), a fashion and design house which seeks to empower community artisans.

Aside from seeing the R2R brand as aspirational, the Sibaltan women weavers were inspired by how women from the Payatas dumpsite grew themselves into a formidable enterprise. R2R’s humble beginnings resonated with them as a powerful message that if the Payatas women could do it, so could they.

R2R then provided SWWAI with an overview on production, marketing and sales plus designs. After a week-long training during mid-2014, sixty design prospects were added to their list.

Following through the weavers’ new found confidence, Ayala Foundation invited The Leather Collection (TLC), a company specializing in corporate gift items using high-quality leather, to take a look at SWWAI.

TLC thought highly of the Sibaltan women’s craftsmanship, realizing that they were capable of weaving fine leather strips into panel materials that they needed for their luxury products, namely wallets, folios, key fobs, among others.

Shortly after the visit, five women weavers from Sibaltan and Villapaz towns were flown to Manila for skills development with TLC. Later on, their output formed a unique, limited edition collection of luxury bags and gift items.

“We learned about quality in our training with The Leather Collection. We realized that we should not just weave in a rush. We have to make sure that our products are of the highest quality. We know that Leather Collection sells them at a really high price so they have to be the best,” Diay Bantog says.

The foundation believes that by upping the skills of the women weavers, developing new products with greater appeal and function, and facilitating access to the market, a far greater value—both on a personal scale and product-wise—will be created.

Aside from now being used in Ayala Land’s El Nido resorts, the bayongs and other buri products have been used as conference bags by Manila-based national and international organizations. Seeing the versatility of the woven buri-pandan products, they were made into notebooks, tea boxes, notepad boxes, and others. These gift items were developed in partnership with Custom Made Crafts.

Bigger dreams

Nowadays, children in Sibaltan, El Nido, Palawan still fly kites and play along the shores like before, but their mothers, grandmothers and sisters who compose the Sibaltan Women Weavers Association, Inc. are now seeing far beyond the resort town’s horizon. And others are taking notice.

During El Nido’s 100th founding anniversary last March 12, the people of El Nido, Palawan recognized Ayala Foundation Program Manager Chiara Cruza’s strong leadership and unwavering support to their community programs, foremost among which is SWWAI’s transformation.

“We are happy where we are now and thank Chiara being good to us and helping us all the way. Totoong-totoo sya. (She is so true.) She gives us advise even on our little problems,” Diay says, adding that now that they have come this far, they will appreciate a special training in financial management, budgeting and record keeping.

The Sibaltan women weavers are now taking the future into their own hands. Now working full-time at SWWAI, they proudly share their plans for the future.

“My daughter, who is 15, is a special child. I want to send my 10-year-old son to college. I can say this because I now earn more than my husband who works as highway laborer. On the whole, I am able to provide for my family in a much better way,” SWWAI president Diay Bantog declares.