Friday, September 24, 2010

Finding strength and happiness - in numbers

Finding strength and happiness -- in numbers
Business World Online
September 24, 2010

Paolo Benigno Aquino IV
Mark Joaquin Ruiz
President/Managing Director
MicroVentures, Inc.

"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference." These often-quoted lines by poet Robert Frost aptly describe the journey of school friends Paolo Benigno "Bam" Aquino IV and Mark Joaquin Ruiz. Years later, their minds would meet and together would embark courageously on the road not taken. They would co-create a revolutionary microenterprise business model to address the economic and social inequity for those marginalized by the status quo -- the more than 50% of the total Filipino population who lives on less than $2 a day.

They had gone on different career tracks after graduating with Management Engineering degrees from the Ateneo de Manila. After college, Mr. Aquino established himself in the public service sector, while Mr. Ruiz ventured into the corporate world.

"I always considered myself a social entrepreneur," Mr. Aquino says, "because I was driven by a strong public service perspective." As a fresh graduate, he joined the ABS-CBN Foundation’s Special Projects Group and was involved in a rehabilitation center for abused and neglected children, disaster management projects, relief operations and volunteer recruitment. He then spearheaded the National Youth Commission as its commissioner-at-large in 2001 before becoming its chairman and CEO in 2003. "In government, I witnessed programs that had short-term gains but no long-term effects for the people it served. That influenced me to think of something that could make a lasting, transforming difference for Filipinos."

Mr. Ruiz, on the other hand, joined global company Unilever as customer development executive and merchandising supervisor. There he honed his skills in customer marketing, promotions development and planning. In just six years, he rose to the position of senior customer marketing manager and CMD head. Mr. Ruiz says, "Unlike Bam, I only considered myself an entrepreneur when I resigned from Unilever to collaborate with him. But being in sales and marketing, I always pushed for social development through innovation and entrepreneurship -- the intersection of my passions and skills."

Mr. Ruiz’s experience in marketing fast-moving consumer goods led to the idea of leveraging on the Filipino sari-sari or convenience stores, usually found in lower-income communities, that make up around 40% of total retail sales in the country. Seeing both the problems and the potentials of the sector, they theorized that for the stores to grow and be truly viable, they needed to enter a new phase of microentrepreneurship development.

After exchanging ideas on innovative microfinance development with like-minded individuals -- among them Dr. Jaime Aristotle Alip, founder of the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development-Mutually Reinforcing Institutions (CARD-MRI) and with whom they would eventually tie up -- Mr. Aquino and Mr. Ruiz concretized their plans and developed a business plan for aggregating microretail outlets, which led to MicroVentures, Inc. (MVI)

MVI started its formal operations in 2007 as a social business enterprise working with CARD-MRI and its borrowers through its flagship project, the "Hapinoy Store Program." A combination of the words "happy" and "Pinoy," Hapinoy aims to "make every Filipino happy" by using an ecosystem management approach to improve local microenterprises. Through the program, a borrower who has top credit scores can borrow capital to convert an existing convenience store into a small Hapinoy Store or a larger Hapinoy Community Store, which serves over 50 small stores.

Recognizing that sari-sari stores are usually owned and run by the woman of the household (the mother or nanay), the Hapinoy Program focuses on increasing these Nanays’ profitability. Nanays are given access to business management and marketing knowledge through the "Path to Prosperity," a four-tiered program designed to assist a fledgling Hapinoy store. Mr. Ruiz says, "We believe that empowering the woman microentrepreneur is a pivotal factor in reducing poverty. Increasing her profitability leads to an improved quality of life for her family and her community as well."

The Hapinoy Program harnesses the potential of smaller enterprises through microfinancing, aggregation, value chain integration, business model innovation, branding and training. By linking Hapinoy Stores with established manufacturers and microproducers, MVI brings sari-sari stores into an organized supply chain. Moreover, MVI is able to get goods directly and at a lower cost and is able to pass these savings on to Hapinoy Stores. "Our partner companies do very well on their own, but they also see the intrinsic value in helping the community," Mr. Aquino says.

As marketing and branding consultant, merchandise consolidator and training provider, MVI teaches each Nanay to make her own business more resilient, profitable and sustainable. Through a training program named Sariskwela, members are equipped with best practices on pricing, inventory and credit management, business expansion and goal setting. Veering away from the traditional patronage relationship between an organization and its beneficiary, Hapinoy empowers each Nanay to be a proactive manager accountable for her own business decisions. While the program teaches each Nanay ways to increase her monthly earnings from P3,000 to P18,000 within six to eight months, MVI’s ultimate goal is to improve her entrepreneurial ability and, consequently, her family’s livelihood, self-esteem and dignity.

In this respect, the Hapinoy Program is different from similar microfinancing or social enterprise models in Mexico or India, where the main focus is on raising funds for the organization’s goals. Village stores in Southeast Asia exist but are not consolidated systematically. Mr. Ruiz mentions that international microfinancing organization Grameen Foundation has singled out Hapinoy’s uniqueness -- while social in nature, it is run like a real business.

"We envisioned Hapinoy as a flexible and wide-ranging platform, giving us more areas of application such as retail, production, mobile banking, technology and healthcare," Mr. Aquino adds. In fact, a grant from the Science and Technology Innovations for the Base of the Pyramid in Southeast Asia has enabled MVI to pilot its Hapinoy Health Hub, which makes affordable medicine available in Hapinoy communities.

Currently, there are 150 Hapinoy Communities of around 10,000 stores concentrated in Southern Luzon. MVI hopes to expand operations in North Luzon by next year and, eventually, establish a Hapinoy presence in every town in the country. Groups in other countries have also expressed interest in replicating the program, and both Mr. Aquino and Mr. Ruiz foresee international expansion.

Mr. Ruiz acknowledges, however, that the present business environment is not quite ready for large-scale social enterprises; for example, there is not much "patient" (long-term) capital source available given the developmental aspect, and for-profit organizations cannot accept donations without being taxed. Mr. Aquino sees this as an opportunity for advocacy, saying that, "It’s time more people push for social entrepreneurship. As donations for non-government organizations get scarcer, social enterprises need to take the lead." Both believe that in the long term, they can help microenterprises integrate into the formal economy and create a system of entrepreneurs helping other entrepreneurs. They dream of changing the world, one happy Pinoy at a time -- it is the road they have taken.


The Entrepreneur Of The Year Philippines 2010 is sponsored by SAP Philippines. Official airline is KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, operating on behalf of the Air-France KLM Group in the Philippines. Media sponsors are BusinessWorld and the ABS-CBN News Channel. The winners of the Entrepreneur Of The Year Philippines 2010 will be announced on October 12, 2010 at an awards banquet at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel.