By: Sagar Gupta
An Unwelcome Welcome
Waking up at 6 am to the crows of roosters is not exactly one’s idea of a vacation. Yet, the excitement of commencing the first day of my course in Jagna, provoked the adrenaline rushing through my veins. My group and I followed Professor Beau to the foot of the small hill that led back up to our homestays in Tubud Mar and boarded a seemingly overcrowded bus, which would silence any complaints Hongkongers have with their own public transport. Finally, we all arrived at the Jagna Church, central to most of our assigned businesses.
A couple of minutes’ walk down the road led us to J&B Enterprises – the grocery-cum-bakeshop that I would be working with. We stood outside this yellow, petite grocery store at 08:30 on a sunny Filipino morning, with the clear intent to achieve the main purpose of our being on this island – collaborative effort for a brighter future of these businesses. Professor Beau introduced us to the owner, Joe Acebes, a cheerful man who appeared to be quite enthusiastic about meeting us – or at least that’s what I was led to believe for the first five minutes.
“Oh, so nice meeting you. Maybe you can come back at 1 pm, I am busy now” he said.
Unsurprisingly, his words dulled my excitement. The next couple of hours were spent dropping off our university-bred companions to their businesses like unwanted tagalongs, scouring the streets for items of interest that would hopefully shorten this unpredictable interlude.
A Fresh Start
We soon decided to have lunch at Garden Cafe’ – our piece of the first world in this township – with its westernized food, WiFi, and air-conditioned environment, comforting us. It is located just on the crossing ahead of J&B so my business partner, Dilys, stopped by at Joe’s to get some ice-cream first. This time we were greeted by his daughter Jobelle, whose university acquired English had me taken aback.
“I’m about to finish med school in Cebu. I fly there this weekend, unfortunately. I would’ve loved to have seen the work you guys end up doing here”.
Thankfully we hadn’t left earlier that morning, otherwise, we would not have met her. So my newly acquired wisdom would have me tell you that although things may not go as planned, learn to work with what you have. Adapting to changing situations and making the best use of new resources is what I believe will see us through our work here.
Our little chat with her is probably what broke the ice and I could see that Joe was warming up to us as well, being an oscillatory participant in the conversation. I realize now that I should not have expected a business owner to instantly share the insides of his business with a complete stranger, trusting them with such accumulated valuable information.
So, finding alternatives to ease out the tension and creating a friendly atmosphere is essential. Once we seemed more like inquisitive foreigners rather than income-tax officers, Joe was ready to talk. He sat us down in his bakeshop and I asked the owner of this grocery store what I thought was the silliest question I could at the time – “So, what do you do?”But boy am I glad I did! Little did I know, this place was a treasure trove of services. For starters, it is one of the only grocery stores in the area which also sells school supplies and provides photocopying services which is of unparalleled convenience to the two schools down the road. They’re also one of the only licensed LPG distributors in the area. Joe has his own bakeshop too; the usual gathering place for children of all ages post school hours where they either queue up for his scrumptious breads or gather around with their tablets, making a display of their Filipino currency to avail the WiFi connectivity provided by the hour.
In our naive attempt to understand why he does what he does, we asked Joe about his business mission. The lives of these loving Pinoys are on the receiving end of demonic intruders like Corruption and Terrorism, which in my opinion are enough inconveniences. Joe aims to serve his people to the best of his capability, to be a hub of convenience and relief to a town sequestered from chain stores and 7-Elevens unlike the neighboring cities.
The only areas we foresaw the need for improvement were in their record keeping and marketing strategies, for we were told that they maintain a handwritten sales book which his wife updates at her convenience. I was now ready to call it a day.
Confusion, Confusion and then Some
Parts of the next day were spent surveying the markets for price and service comparisons alongside trying our hand at internet marketing by creating a Facebook page for their enterprise. Jobelle’s satisfaction with our work was evident, but the following conversation led to some pressing issues.
“Oh, mom is the one who actually knows all our numbers. She makes me enter everything into the computer every 3 months or so. You should talk to her!”
Life lesson: Make sure your assumptions hold good through reliable alternative channels. Be sure you aren’t wasting your time developing something they already have a draft of.
So turns out, they actually do have electronic records of their sales but we were completely shut out when we tried to enquire of the same with her mother. All our attempts at convincing her bounced off her unimpressed expression like arrows off a steel armor, which according to Jobelle, is a perfectly regular response in the house of the Acebes.
Jobelle however, revealed her dream of converting this unassuming grocery shop into a city-like convenience store complete with uniformed cashiers and air-conditioned luxury. With little else to do given our constraints, we began pondering over the feasibility of such a plan, hoping that the new day would bring us some acceptance from Jobelle’s mother whose actions only fell short of evoking emotions of being disowned by my own parentage.
Another day of low response had me questioning my skills and purpose here. Friday however, brought some relief with Jobelle’s text reading that her mother (“the mother” from here on) was ready to meet us. Her message had me extremely gratified as if it were that birthday wish from a special someone.
And meet we did, although the meeting itself taught me that predictability is a gift. Why so? Because it just so happens that the mother has her own dream of starting a coffee-shop and internet cafe on the first floor. The internet cafe is already undergoing a testing phase in the back of the shop but the coffee-shop is her long-term dream, given her current stress levels managing two stores and a bakery. Their inventory and sales records, however, still lie in her chamber of secrets through the backdoor of the shop.
I couldn’t help but experience frustration at the situation, especially when some of the other groups seemed to have things running smoothly. But Professor Beau helped me realize that we aren’t here to force ourselves onto these folks. We must do what we can, given our constraints and only spend our time on ventures that may prove valuable to them. The thought that calmed me, was that we aren’t messiahs helping to eradicate poverty, rather catalysts for change that hopefully leads to a brighter tomorrow.
Back to the future
Well then, the question worth a million pesos: What does one do now?
You readjust, refocus and reschedule. And that’s what we did.
What is clear, is that this family has many dreams but they’re having trouble assessing the practicality of it all. We have decided to spend the remainder of our time here trying to figure out what’s next for Jagna. Whether that would be a convenience store, or a coffee shop or an internet cafe. This is a mammoth task given that we have negligible data to start with and endless google searches wouldn’t cut it either.
It’s making us justify the course title and immerse ourselves into the workings of the businesses here to map how they might transform in the near future. The coming days will be tasking and confusing, but it is equally thrilling to be able to conduct hands-on research on these economic clusters.
I feel like I’ve learned so much already. Whether it is the adaptability to process conflicting data or the resourcefulness in finding alternative routes to accessing information or even the courage to try something unconventional. This experience definitely builds one’s character.
Much like this broken path to an adorable Pinoy hut, the journey to our goal isn’t straightforward, with missing parts, twists and lose ends. But, we have envisioned a goal and we have somewhere to begin. Our job now is to pave the rest of our way through. Even if our results aren’t as exciting, I surely hope that when I zoom out and look back at my journey, I’ll have something to marvel at. Something that made a difference. Stay tuned.