Bridging entrepreneurship in rural and urban areas: An interview with Plush and Play founder Fabien Courteille

Fabien Courteille is the social business incubation head of Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm (GKEF), the social innovation platform of the globally-recognized Gawad Kalinga that aims to “raise social entrepreneurs, help local farmers, and create wealth in the countryside.” He is also the founder of Plush and Play, one of the eldest in more than 20 social enterprises being incubated in the farm.

In this special vignette, the De La Salle University Center for Business Research and Development – Social Enterprise Research Network interviews Fabien for an overview of the social incubation work being done in the farm as well as the vast, untapped opportunities he perceives in the country’s entrepreneurial landscape.

How would you describe the purpose and rationale behind the creation of the farm’s business incubation team?

The basic idea was, how do you create a conducive space for people to actually start a business? Oftentimes, what you hear is that not so many people are actually prepared to be entrepreneurs. It’s only recently that the different schools in the Philippines are putting entrepreneurship classes. Before, there were not so many formal ways on how to learn to be an entrepreneur.

One thing we are trying to do is, how do we develop more activity and economic development in the province? Everyone wants to go to Manila. It’s overpopulated. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to Manila. Gawad Kalinga (GK) has built thousands of houses and communities all over the country. The only way to sustain the people within these communities is to actually give them sustainable jobs. That’s one thing we started of thinking–what if we started businesses in the different GK communities so that we can provide sustainable jobs for the communities there?

The first idea was to bring the graduates from top universities to the province and work with the communities in terms of agriculture. Many of those graduates from the top universities actually come from the province, but as soon as they graduate, the only objective is going abroad or corporations. None of them are thinking, “Hey, I will go back to my province and help my kababayan.” That’s something we have a hard time on. We realize that many things that were taught in school were–this is a bit of an opinion–is disconnected from the realities of work.

Can you cite examples?

Most of the graduates don’t even know that, for instance, 98% of the dairy, 90% of the mushroom, and 85% of chocolate industry in the country are imported. The Philippines, however, is proud of the cacao belt, so they can grow cacao here easily. The PH is rich in carabaos, cows, and goats, but how come we’re not using the milk for such purpose? There are millions of carabaos in the country and yet they’re not used for dairy purposes. That’s one thing I’m trying to understand, if it’s not an opportunity, then tell me what it is.

I hear oftentimes the challenge of people wanting to be an entrepreneur, but ayaw nila sa probinsya. Ayaw nila sa farming. Ayaw sa livestock, so what type of entrepreneur is it going to be?

I received hundreds of inquiries of people wanted to start a business. 95% of them wanted to start online selling platforms. But before you have something to sell online, you need the producers, and we don’t have producers. We have millions of people who are waiting for opportunity. There are millions of hectares of land that are abandoned. The Philippines is one of the most fertile lands in Southeast Asia and one of the richest biodiversities in the world.

So what are they learning in school if it’s not taking advantage of these opportunities? I have skilled people; I have a hundred million-based consumer market. I have industries that have yet to be developed or yet to be tapped.

The way is to start an agriculture-based business in the countryside of the Philippines. I hear too many excuses like, oh it’s too hot to start a dairy industry. In India – the largest producer and consumer of dairy in the world – their climate is worse than the Philippines. It’s hotter and more humid, so what’s our excuse? It’s an excuse if you want to do it with cows, but why would you want to have cows if you have carabaos?

How come no one is actually taking advantage of it? How come the Philippines is proud of being the biggest exporters of coconut in the world, but the coconut farmers are among the poorest in the country? I don’t know where the pride is there. The coconut industry is one of the biggest value chains. Value chain is one of the keywords you should learn as an entrepreneur. As of now, because we’re exporting raw coconut, we’re not getting anything from this value chain. Same for chocolate. As for bamboo, we’re not even talking about bamboo in the Philippines. I don’t know if anyone minds bamboos in the country, but it’s one of the biggest industries being developed in China, Indonesia, Europe, and US – they are crazy over bamboo. The Philippines has the potential to grow a lot of bamboo.

Those are things that I call disconnections. I come from a country where opportunities are limited, and so we have to push entrepreneurs to actually move into technology and innovation. Looking at the Philippines, we’re not there yet. The Philippines is a country with thousands of industries that are yet to be tapped and developed. Every time I go to business competitions and schools, parang wala silang idea aside from e-commerce sites.

You mentioned a lot of the opportunities available in the Philippines. In terms of your business incubation team, how do you select the social entrepreneurs who will actually have their enterprises incubated in the farm?

The first direction was to get the graduates from top universities, because at one point we want to show entrepreneurs that they are just one piece of the puzzle. Oftentimes, the entrepreneurs would come in, look at the community, and say, that’s my labor. But if you come think of it, the entrepreneur, most of the time, he has no idea how to grow peanuts or how to make peanut butter. However, he has marketing skills, business skills, and access to networks in Manila. On the other side, mothers from the community – they know how to grow the peanuts and make peanut butter, but they don’t know marketing and networks. Let’s be business partners and let’s do something, but oftentimes it’s too much of a job and too much of thinking. I will be the one to come and run this show and I ask them to walk for me – this oftentimes does not work. That’s again, the disconnection of not understanding where they come from, what they bring in to the picture, or sometimes the sense of entitlement that is strong when you come from top universities.

It’s not just the Philippines; it’s also around the world that the entitlement because of the degree is so strong. However, a degree of a top university will not take you anywhere in Bulacan; literally in one context it’s true, but in another one it’s not. That’s one thing, we try to bring students from top universities to come in here.

Oftentimes, the challenge is actually family pressure. You hear things like, “I did not send you to top universities for you to go to the countryside. I did not send you there for you to go to the wet market or for you to not earn money in the first year.” Oftentimes, as soon as they graduate, the parents ask them to start paying the bills at home. That’s usually what slows down entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurs should be free for the first couple of years to get their business moving forward before they can pay the bills of the family. I’ve seen many, because, “Oh, I have to pay the bills for my parents. Car. Condo. I keep paying for my parents, even though they’re retiring.” That’s the pressure that people from the city are enduring – the entitlement of family or anything, loans, many pressures.

Now, it’s starting to move into different directions where we realize that among those in the communities, we have a lot of kids who are motivated who have the character, time, and desire to go out of poverty. What they like most of the time is the science, technology, and competencies. That’s one thing we’re trying to do now – we identify the different kids in our provinces and communities who show good academic records, but don’t have the opportunities to go to college. We’re moving into an incubation that’s started even before the business. We incubate the entrepreneur. We train them like a college degree. While talking the degree, he’s starting the business, that’s part of his grades. By the end of year one, you should have already done this business plan and SWOT analysis. By a year or two there’s a prototype already.

If you’re going to give a tip or advice for social entrepreneurs, what would be the primary strategies they can do? What should they focus on? What should they pay the most attention to in terms of their strategy?

As a social enterprise, it would be very important to understand what social issue they’re talking about, because you do have a lot of people who want to venture into social entrepreneurship, but they don’t have a group of people they want to help. That’s the problem – you think you’re going to help them, but you don’t know what they need.

I would recommend anyone wanting to become an entrepreneur to spend every sixth month or year just to shadow an existing entrepreneur. In the farm, you can shadow 40 entrepreneurs. So that’s one thing I can suggest, don’t be in a hurry. But when you start, don’t be slow. You’re going to engage other people. Once you start, be focused, be committed, and just do that. It’s not a hobby anymore. If you’re not ready to be full-time, just help. Volunteer. Just shadow. Don’t start your own yet. It’s only when you’re ready. It’s super demanding. It’s not 8-5. The biggest challenge, honestly, is you don’t have the boss behind you to make sure you get the work done, so it’s easy to actually be tempted of not doing it, postponing it to tomorrow, and not challenging yourself to do more. That’s what’s challenging, I think. Unless you’ve grown that self-discipline, then better. And very critical also is who are you going to do business with. Spend enough time to choose. Once you’re tied with a corporation, it’s very difficult.