The tribal women of South Cotabato have banded together to form one of the biggest indigenous groups of women artisans in the Philippines.
With 143 members, and still growing, the Kestubong Women’s Association Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries is a community of skilled handicraft makers bound by common economic aspirations.
Majority of the women are skilled in woven crafts, while others are gifted on creating tribal designed-embroideries. Still, many are accomplished furniture makers. Everyone gets to contribute to the same goal of having a sustainable livelihood, said association president Sayna Cafon.
“About percent of KeWARB members are of indigenous people descent and 10 percent are non-indigenous women. We have organized ourselves to create a better future for the women of Lake Sebu and for a chance to contribute to our family’s economic emancipation. This goes without saying that our goal, though purely economic, does not exclude our efforts to promote the indigenous heritage of Lake Sebu and the tribes that inhabit this part of Mindanao,” she said.
Cafon said the group is undergoing a creative phase under the auspices of government agencies like the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Tourism.
Since the group started in 2015, it has been producing products with the same designs, over and over. Though demand is starting to pick up after the pandemic, the market is steeped with similar products but better quality and designs. At this point, the group realized it is time to innovate if they are to survive competition.
Linkages to innovation
KeWARB considered it a very opportune moment when the DTI Region 12 offered its assistance to help them improve their craft through product development.
In April 2023, the DTI linked the group with a professional designer to educate members on new and timely designs, innovate their production processes and help them market their products.
Cafon said it was a first for KeWARB members to collaborate with a product designer, much more with a well-known professional designer. Mindanao haute couture entrepreneur turned furniture designer Ivan Raborar is an icon in the local fashion scene.
“It was only through Sir Ivan that we realized the potential of our association, that there is a big window for us to improve our crafts in ways we can only imagine,” said Cafon, admitting that the group has never before had the foresight to go out of the box or go beyond the limits of their imagination.
Through a P300,000 financial assistance provided by the Department of Agrarian Reform in 2021, KeWARB put up a processing and display center in Barangay Tasiman, Lake Sebu, where association members gather daily to work on their crafts and provide support to each other.
It was one of the recipients of the DAR’s Village Level Farm-focused Enterprise Development project that aims to enhance the products of the agrarian reform beneficiaries using appropriate facilities and equipment applicable to the agri-business enterprise of the ARBs.
KeWARB creates handicrafts using local materials that are abundant in their area. Rattan or forest vines and bamboo are the staple raw materials from which the group creates handicrafts. For beadworks, earrings and necklaces, the group sources local beads. Through product development training, the group was able to fashion bracelets using rattan, a new innovation added to their product line.
The group also uses “nito”, a vine specie that is perfect for woven handicraft due to its flexibility and strong fibrous twine. The creeping plant grows aplenty in parts of Luzon, particularly in Southern Tagalog and Mindanao.
While the group is not into textile weaving, many members are also skilled embroiderers with a knack to conjure ethnic designs that are appealing to tourists. One of their popular products is a simple tribal blouse designed with indigenous patterns and beadwork.
Before, KeWARB handicrafts, though exquisitely woven like bags, baskets or lampshades, seemed dull and lifeless for lack of color. The training on product development has helped the group transform their products into more colorful pieces of utilitarian art.
Bigger pieces of useful art like rocking chairs and the so-called “Cleopatra chair” are now part of the eclectic line of native products the group produces. Many KeWARB’s products are custom-made for specific clients that keep the association busy all-year.
KeWARB buys the products of members at fair market prices and looks for markets in and around Mindanao. Hotels and resorts in the region are the usual markets for the products. Among the regular patrons are resorts in Lake Sebu like Punta Isla Lake Resort, Dreamweavers Hill and Seven Falls, among others.
The group is carefully expanding its reach beyond Mindanao and into a bigger market. One of the recent shipments that went to Manila is a batch of handmade barrettes with native design, specifically ordered by a client who’s into retail fashion.
Cafon said KeWARB is also weaving big dreams of bringing its products to the export market.
“This is why all of us are working real hard to learn from the product development trainings. We want our craft to evolve. We aim for perfection so we can reach markets overseas. It is part of our strategy – to export our best-selling pieces to the global market in three to five years,” she said.
She said the goal to export runs parallel to their plan to promote Lake Sebu as a tourisw destination, popularize its cultural heritage and create International market for all the products, not only in Lake Sebu but also in other parts of Mindanao.
While the intent is noble, Cafon admitted that they still lack the needed push to innovate faster. The need for new types of equipment and added capital to expand their production remains a challenge for the group.
As the group is grateful for the technical assistance the DTI provides, KeWARB is similarly thankful to the DOT for helping them promote their products.
Grasping at straws
Restricted by geographic limitations, Cafon said the group has had a hard time coping with the pandemic that has left nothing to the livelihood of over 100 women in Tasiman, Lake Sebu.
Robbed of the means to survive, KeWARB was quick to pivot into the virtual market using Facebook as its first platform, before jumping to e-commerce.
“We posted our products online, but the pandemic has kept our sales to bare minimum since most of the people are prioritizing basic needs, which is understandable. After all, we all were all the same situation. Surviving the pandemic was a difficult phase for all of us especially the indigenous women, whose skill are are limited to weaving handicrafts,” Cafon said.
Prior to pandemic, the group has been attending trade fairs and promotional expos in the region and at the local government unit level, which has greatly improved revenues through spot and booked sales.
The group is hopeful that the product development trainings with the DTI will create new markets for their handicrafts, furniture and wearables.
Cafon said government assistance was pivotal to the transformation of KeWARB into a sustainable, eco-friendly enterprise empowering women in the countryside.
“We hope the assistance given to us will be replicated to other groups with the same goals as ours. There are challenges along the way, as we had experienced, and more challenges to face as a group. Time-tested, we are strong but we still have a long journey to trek to realize our plans for the future,” she said.