By Rachelle Cruz, ABS-CBN News
TORONTO — EJ Mariano has launched many startups in the Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam — all before the age of 25.
And he’s changing how people think about Filipino craftsmanship.
In front of a crowd of more than 100, he talked about how AKABA implements the fair trade business model. and works with weavers and local artisans in 10 communities and 7 provinces all over the Philippines.
His team grew from eight weavers to 100 within a year — making hugh quality travel bags.
“So what we do is employ 107 weavers all over the Philippines, and we buy their fabric at market price and at the same time, we finance the education of their children, and we provide private health care assistance for those who avail of it really,” Mariano said.
Indigenous weaving is a dying craftsmanship in the Philippines.
But EJ wanted to revive those traditions while giving back to his community.
He started in in Ilocos Norte where’s he is from. AKABA has spearheaded a livelihood program to educate residents of Gawad Kalinga Namnama Village.
Today, AKABA also supports existing weaving communities in Isabela Province, Oriental Mindoro, Zamboanga, Basilan, and Sulu through fair trade.
Like most entrepreneurs, EJ took many risks – he even visited conflict-prone areas in the southern Philippines just to meet local artisans.
So when the co-founder of Cambio Market found out that EJ was coming to Toronto to visit his family, they took the opportunity to share his story.
“We have misconceptions that Philippines is all about pretty beaches or that the Philippines is really dangerous, or that Filipino-made products are not quality products or not export quality and for us, this event was really a way for us to change that narrative,” said Gelaine Santiago, from Cambio Market.
AKABA wants to compete with brand giants like Herschel, while staying true to their social mission.
“In a country like the Philippines, you always see these people, these people who do the hardest work, always shortchanged. So I just feel like there’s a lot to do about it,” said EJ.
This year, AKABA will be opening up six flagship stores in the Philippines, four in Metro Manila and two in Cebu City.
By 2018, they will opening up another six all over the country.