Nama-なま: Of freshness and greens

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I’ve had the pleasure of helping my friend man the booth of his startup — called Nama — at the Lasallian Mission Trade Fair this week at De La Salle University, Philippines. In Japanese, Nama’s literal translation is fresh, natural, and as it is.

Nama’s goal is to produce microgreens such as basil, arugula, and broccoli, among others. These microgreens are used as garnish for various dishes such as appetizers and meals. Apart from being healthy, microgreens also add various flavor profiles to your dish.

Check out their Facebook page to know more.

Dreaming big, dreaming tech: Learnings from MIT GSW 2018

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Last March 26 to 28, I attended the MIT Global Startup Workshop held at Bangkok, Thailand together with my startup, Lungtian Solutions. The event hosted several workshops focusing on technology, particularly in the realms of fintech, agritech, edutech, artificial intelligence, prototyping, and entrepreneurial strategies, among others. Three competitions were also held, which include the startup showcase, elevator pitch, and business plan competition.

Where do I even begin to describe the significance of this event? One word: tech. With the event’s theme, “Dream big. Dream tech,” it serves as a motivation for the attendees to maximize technology and use it as leverage to help solve the common good’s problems.

We see the emergence of tech such as the following:

  • Machine learning
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Blockchain
  • Cryptocurrency
  • Internet of things
  • Robotics
  • Virtual reality
  • Augmented reality
  • …and many others

These technologies have so many applications in several aspects of our lives that they have become the center of advancement in today’s time. Blockchain, for instance, allows us to make use of a decentralized, distributed ledger that essentially ensures the anonymity of any form of transaction online. Unlike banks which serve as middlemen in many transactions, blockchain eliminates the middlemen and enables direct peer-to-peer transactions. Many developments are undergoing under blockchain, one of which is cryptocurrency and how several digital currencies are being deployed into a blockchain network.

Another application of blockchain that can prove to be helpful for Filipinos is blockchain-based remittances. Unlike the traditional sending of remittance, one that is based in the blockchain eliminates the need for middlemen such as banks and other financial services and, therefore, reduces the total time spent for remittances to be transferred to the Philippines. With the blockchain network, this also ensures the anonymity and security of transactions through encryption. One such startup doing this is Bloom.

Another emerging field, agritech and precision agriculture, enables the use of Internet of Things applications, for instance, to use sensors for monitoring humidity, temperature, light intensity, nitrogen, and pH levels of plants, among others. The data gathered from these will enable us to optimize further the growth of crops and, therefore, increase overall food production. When it comes to the Philippines, however, we are still quite far from developing such technologies in large and commercial scale due to the lack of resources, research, development, and the existing technologies we have in agriculture (i.e. in fact, we are still using carabaos, and many farms don’t have a tractor yet to help them with farming tasks). To address this, there are a few incubation programs such as the IoT Hackathon organized by MakeSense and Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm that aims to integrate IoT applications in agriculture. To upscale these efforts, joint and synergistic efforts must be undertaken by both the public and private sectors.

Photo taken from pixabay.com, a community of creatives, sharing copyright free images and videos. All contents are released under Creative Commons CC0.

These technologies may seem an expensive and intimidating investment for developing countries such as the Philippines, but they can be done. If startups like Bloom and coins.ph were able to do it, this is all the more reason for us to invest in such technologies.


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My first taste on building a social startup

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Building a startup is not easy. Building a social startup is even more difficult. I figured, however, why not try it? Social enterprises are, after all, close to my heart.

Last 2017, I found an opportunity to build my own startup through the opening of applications for the BPI Sinag U for Entrepreneurs, a social business pitch competition. I applied through the Lasallian Social Enterprise for Economic Development, which was handling the training program for Lasallians who wanted to join the competition. I got in, went through the training program, developed a social business idea with my partner, participated in the regional competition, got qualified for the national competition, and won sixth place overall. The national level was composed of student teams from across the Philippines. It was a very exhilarating experience–one that I will surely never forget.

Fast forward to today, after accomplishing all the business plans, marketing strategies, financial models, operational systems, and investment profiles, among many others, my team is now composed of five people. We are, however, going back to scratch. We realized that we had different directions in terms of the growth trajectory that we want our startup to follow. We also realized that we still do not exactly know the core problem that our startup aims to tackle. Bottom-line is, we need to revisit why this startup idea exists in the first place.

Currently, we are undergoing intensive market research as well as aligning the varying interests and goals of the team. Our startup idea is basically a shipping container urban farm which we tentatively named as Lungtian Urban Farm. It aims to tackle the issue of food security in urban communities, as well as promote economic development and sustainable communities. It is essentially a farm within a shipping container wherein the temperature, weather, lighting, and overall environment suitable to the growth of crops are simulated. This involves several pieces of technology such as Internet of Things, aquaponics, vertical farming, and LED lights, to name a few. The business concept is essentially similar to shipping container urban farms such as Freight Farms, Square Roots, and Growtainer, among others.

At the end of the day, our goal is to be able to provide quality crops in the urban setting of the Philippines, as well as enable easier market access to such crops. We will also be tapping into farmers and low income individuals as our primary workforce. This will be the main social, human element that our business aims to tackle, apart from solving the problems of consumers in terms of food security.

Here are some photos of our current prototype tests.

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Applying design thinking in social innovation and entrepreneurship

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I was first introduced to the concept of design thinking through a friend who’s fond of saying, “bad design!” to practically anything he sees as having an actual, bad design. For instance, something as simple as the oddly small sidewalks along certain streets in Metro Manila have a bad design, primarily because people have to squeeze through these sidewalks. These people also run the risk of getting hit by vehicles when they step beyond the sidewalk. A better design would be not just bigger sidewalks, but sidewalks that are designed by taking into consideration the safety and perspective of the people who will actually cross there. In a broader perspective, however, what is design thinking?

In an article by Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt at the Stanford Social Innovation Review, they state that design thinking as an approach involves “capacities that we all have, but that are overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices.” The traditional design approach to business, for instance, has usually been on enhancing the look and functionality of products. Design thinking, however, goes beyond the façade of looks and functionalities, and places a heavy emphasis on creating products and services that are human-centered and solve a particular problem faced by people. The entire process itself integrates various human elements and cultural aspects.

Simply put, what design thinking aims to tackle are what one may call institutional voids or systemic problems that have been plaguing society for many years. Be it in the inadequacies of the Philippine government, our healthcare system, mass transportation system, and agricultural productivity, among others, design thinking can bring out new and innovative solutions. However, design thinking is obviously not easy as it involves a continuous articulation of the issue at hand and finding creative means to address that issue.

Moreover, the caveat is that not every individual or organization would immediately subscribe to the notion behind design thinking, as this typically involves veering away from traditional and well-established mechanisms. Like any radical or innovative change, however, a pinch of resistance is usually expected.

The compressed idea behind design thinking involves three aspects: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. This does not necessarily mean you have to undergo it sequentially, because these three aspects are treated more as a system with overlapping effects and interrelations.

In doing business, how do these three aspects come into play? Let’s take a look at one particular trend in the country that is slowly gaining traction: social entrepreneurship. In fact, in an October 2017 study by the British Council Philippines, there is estimated to be now over 164,473 social enterprises in the country.

The most common form of social innovation in the Philippines involve social enterprises that tackle marginalized groups or communities. For instance, Karabella Dairy, a social enterprise that produces dairy products from carabao milk, partners with carabao farmers in Bulacan and also has goals of scaling up its business. Another social enterprise, ANTHILL Fabric Gallery, partners with local indigenous communities across Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao to create beautifully handwoven products including fabrics, accessories, handbags, and dolls, among others. My last example is MAD Travel, a social tourism platform which offers travel packages that involve meaningful experiences with marginalized communities in the Philippines.

In these examples, design thinking comes into play with the fact that these are not just products or services created for the satisfaction of the consumers, but are also created to support marginalized groups by partnering and working with them. This is where the human-centered element of design thinking comes in. The inspiration involves the marginalized communities and their struggles, the ideation focuses on finding out creative means to help them through employment, and the implementation stage tackles the concrete steps that will be taken. Design thinking even goes beyond the usual operations of the business itself, and zooms further into how empathizing with stakeholders can bring about certain issues, and with it, simple and innovative solutions.

In a nutshell, what these social enterprises and many others in the Philippines are attempting to change is the systemic problem of employment and empowerment among rural communities. Design thinking has been applied for quite some time now, and as it is slowly gaining popularity in the country, the more we should take advantage of it to solve our societal ills.


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Why I choose social entrepreneurship

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I was first engrossed with the idea of social entrepreneurship when I first visited the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm (GKEF). If you would notice my two previous blog posts, both of them were about the GKEF too. I just can’t get enough of the place. The thought of building agricultural social enterprises to help underserved communities was very attractive to me. I wanted to create a social impact that will resonate among many people. There and then, when I visited the farm, I knew that I wanted to do something similar.

These blocks of letters are found at the GKEF’s Hyundai Building, where the Social Business Summit is usually held and the SEED students conduct their classes.

Following my GKEF visit, I began looking for a part-time job that would satiate my desire to start a social enterprise. That’s when I found the DLSU Center for Business Research and Development. I became a research assistant there, and since then I was exposed to several social enterprises like Anthill Fabric Gallery, ReyMic Enterprises, engageSPARK, Bayani Brew, Karabella Dairy, and many more. I have fun doing research about these social enterprises, and I believe it’s one way for me to become one step closer in fully learning how to build my own social enterprise. I admit that I still have a lot to learn, most especially in the operations and finance aspect, but it looks like I’m doing good so far!

Me (in blue shirt) together with my professor (in white), fellow research assistant (in blue polo), and secretary of the DLSU Center for Business Research and Development.

My interest on social entrepreneurship just continues to grow every day. Just like what one of my mentors would always say, the problems we see in society shouldn’t be seen as problems per se, but as opportunities to create social business solutions that will tackle those problems. If you’re successful, you can even replicate that solution and expand it so that more people would benefit from it.

One particular social enterprise that inspires me is Human Nature, which started even before the GKEF was formed. Human Nature sells and produces beauty and cosmetic products that are environment-friendly. They also pay their workers with something higher than the minimum wage. Moreover, they have expanded to other countries such as the United States. But what consistently strucks me the most about them is their advocacies on women empowerment, wherein they organized a summit about it.

This shows us that social enterprises do not just mean business and that the social aspect is not only secondary. In fact, what makes social enterprises different from traditional businesses is that the social aspect is one of social enterprises’ main agenda. While Human Nature makes sure that its revenue streams are constantly flowing through sales and whatnot, it also has the ultimate goal of promoting environment-friendly products and women empowerment. These advocacies are directly embedded in the totality of their brand; the way they market and advertise their products is a manifestation of their social mission.

Recently, I’ve also joined a social enterprise competition called the BPI Sinag U for Entrepreneurs. We are developing an urban agriculture business model that will initially focus on the sustainable development of relocation sites in the Philippines. Ultimately, our goal is “to establish sustainable communities through urban agriculture.” We know how people in relocation sites do not really want to live in such places because they don’t see any opportunity there. But what if we show them that relocation sites can become economically viable? Urban agriculture has been one of the foremost, recent solutions in urban settings due to its simplicity and effectivity. Instead of buying vegetables and fruits in the supermarket, which are evidently pricy as compared to when you buy directly from farmers, with urban agriculture you can now produce your own crops. You can even sell them and make a business out of it. Through the social enterprise that my team and I are forming, we are looking into being able to expand this urban agriculture business model to other communities in the country–not just relocation sites. If ever we succeed in this competition, we will definitely push through with this business.

Me (in blue) together with other DLSU representatives for BPI Sinag U for Entrepreneurs.

My social entrepreneurship journey so far has been filled with challenges and opportunities. If it were not for the people who supports me along the way, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. Here’s to nation building and finding innovative solutions to our social ills!


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