From corporate to social entrepreneurship: The ups and downs of Erika Valerie Ng Wong

 

Erika Valerie Ng Wong is a corporate-woman-turned-social-entrepreneur who partners with farmers in the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm (GKEF) and the nearby community to create dairy products from carabao milk. Her past experience in the corporate world left her questioning her personal role in society. She knew she had to do something to help address social problems. That was also when she discovered the Social Business Summit in GKEF, which talked about how a new breed of businesses called social enterprises. These businesses are socially-innovative and tackle core social issues such as poverty and employment.

In our interview with Ms. Wong, we highlight the steps she went through from being a corporate woman to slowly scaling her social enterprise Karabella Dairy.

What happened after you joined the Social Business Summit? What drove you to continue your path as a social entrepreneur?

I was so inspired after the summit. At that time, I just went to GKEF once a month during weekends, because I still had my corporate job. Every time I went there, I sit in during their discussions and meetings. At that time, the management meetings were still very informal. The farm was also not a VAT-registered entity yet; it was more of a foundation, so it wasn’t profit-generating. Then, there was this time when they were looking for social entrepreneurs interested in ice cream because, before, there was this social enterprise called Cream of the Crop, which suddenly disappeared. Their concept was focused on partnering and working with dirty ice cream manufacturers.

Did you have a specific objective that time?

At that time, I really wanted to become a social entrepreneur. So whatever I was assigned to, I was willing to take that on. Eventually, I decided to be a social entrepreneur, and so I joined the countryside fair. They had me buy a tub of ice cream, specifically dirty ice cream from local manufacturers, which was around P900 each. It was very expensive.

At that time, we had different flavors including watermelon, salabat, and coffee. I found myself asking, why dirty ice cream? I decided to visit the community that produces this type of ice cream. There, I found that the facilities and equipment are usually placed in the middle of the squatters’ area, and there were no walls. I asked my friends from engineering how to make the dirty ice cream business into a food-grade level business. They said that it’s important to build walls, tile the floors, and place a sink for sanitation purposes. When we estimated the costs, it turned out that I needed a million pesos in capital investment. That includes only the facility. To create the set-up, I used my savings from my corporate stint.

Initially, however, I thought that the business model was not entirely feasible. There was a time wherein I discovered that, underneath the machine being used to make ice cream, there were hair and even shards of glass. My community partner showed it to me.

At that point, I told myself that I can’t work with them anymore. I revisited the business plan and looked at it on a macroeconomic scale. I was able to use the different templates from my college classes in economics and business. While researching, I found out that 98.8% of the dairy products in the Philippines is imported. Almost all the brands in the market are imported, but packaged locally. That’s also when I discovered Fonterra, the fourth largest dairy industry in the world, which is also a cooperative. Their shareholders were farmers, and they’re based in New Zealand. They also have cooperatives in China. I told myself I wanted to emulate Fonterra’s practice, but I’ll focus on carabao milk, mostly because of the poor farmers commonly associated with it.

I researched about carabao milk, and found that it is richer in terms of nutrients as compared to cow’s milk. I was raised with cow’s milk, so I don’t know much about carabao’s milk. People who came from the province—they’re the ones who know more about carabao’s milk. That’s when I thought to myself that I wanted to champion carabao’s milk. I formed my vision, and that is to be the supplier and processor of carabao milk. From there, I eventually created a full line of dairy products like ice cream that are made of carabao milk.

How do you measure your enterprise’s social impact?

For now, it’s more of how much salary we are able to give to the community partners and how many liters of milk we buy at prices higher than the market value. Usually that’s how we do it, because we haven’t thoroughly studied how we would measure our social impact. Eventually, what we plan to do is that we can buy the milk at even higher prices. It still depends. We will still undergo studies. On top of the P75 cost of milk, we’re planning that to include what would go to the SSS contributions and PhilHealth of farmers, among others.

Do you have any tips for aspiring social entrepreneurs?

It’s very difficult, because it’s a constant battle. There are days when it can get very depressing, but at the end, you should always ask yourself why you are doing it in the first place. What for? Why did I start this? What gives me inspiration are the people who work with me in the GKEF community. On the other hand, you need to make sure that the farmers are taken care of, and that they will still be there in the next generations to come. If not, there will be much less production of food, and many people would starve. That’s what the GKEF is breeding — a generation of social entrepreneurs and farmers.