The knitty-gritty of a social enterprise
Former preschool teacher Candy Reyes Alipio followed her heart when she moved to Baguio, the hometown of her husband, environmentalist JP Alipio, in 2012.
Seeing the beauty of the “City of Pines” and its people, and wanting to help some of its residents, she reached out to Ricefield Collective, a venture started by Meredith Talusan and Anna Maltz, two knitters from the US and the United Kingdom, respectively.
Like her, they wanted to find a way to sustain the way of life of farmers who tend to the rice terraces in the north. Candy then volunteered to teach a group of women how to knit and make hats, cowls, scarves and other high-quality accessories for the US market. Unfortunately, because of sustainability issues, Ricefield Collective ceased operations in September 2014.
Candy shares, “I had come to know the women from the months I had volunteered and when they were looking for more work, I decided to continue the knitting projects and start making products for the local market using locally sourced materials.”
Thus, in October 2014 she started Knitting Expedition. “Seeing the beauty of Ifugao, getting to know the women and their families, and discovering how good they are with their hands have really inspired me," she.said.
Candy has been an avid knitter since 2006 and for her, finding a group of women who took to knitting was quite a blessing.
Knitting also allows them to work from their homes, while taking care of their children and tending to their rice fields at the same time. And because they are able to knit from anywhere, they are able to stay in their ancestral lands in Ifugao and not have to find work in other big cities.
To this day Candy continues to work with the same community of women in Uhaj, Banaue, Ifugao. Last Christmas, about 24 of these women worked for Knitting Expedition.
When asked about her plans and dreams for Knitting Expedition, she reveals, “We are working to bring Knitting Expedition to other markets outside the Philippines, and also to grow the number of women, and hopefully be able to replicate this model in other communities.
"We hope to be able to explore more local materials, and experiment more with naturally dyed yarn for new product lines, which hopefully can include more wearables and home accessories. We also want to extend our value chain to include more people in the community — like dyers, sewers, etc. And hopefully we can continue our Knitting Expedition trips to Ifugao when everything is safe again."
For those who want to start a social enterprise, here are Candy’s pieces of advice:
You have to love what you are doing
The work is not easy — you need to invest a lot more time and effort than a regular desk job. My work with Knitting Expedition has me travelling eight to 10 hours on a bus to get to the community, plus another 30 minutes on a tricycle, manning a booth at a pop-up for three days straight, picking up and sending things at bus stations early in the morning, running around picking up things from suppliers, among other things. But it also includes staying in a mountain village overlooking the rice terraces for days, hiking across centuries-old terraces to a hot spring, sharing freshly harvested, home-cooked meals with my knitters, spending the whole day knitting, laughing and chatting, meeting old and new friends at pop-ups! If you don’t love what you are doing (and WHY you are doing it), you will not last.
Respect the culture and the people
When I first came to work with this community of farmers in Ifugao, I wanted to make sure that our work didn’t just get in the way of their rice-farming culture and traditions, but we wanted to help preserve it. We work around their planting and harvest cycles, and also started bringing small groups to visit the village, hike on the terraces, experience planting and learning about the culture through a traditional performance by the village kids.
Find a balance between profit and people
As much as you would like to keep helping people, you have to find a way to do it sustainably — you have to make a profit so that you can continue to do the work that you do.
Look beyond just providing an income
To making an impact on their life and on their community. Most enterprises, just like ours, start by providing a livelihood to a small group of artisans. But over the years, we worked towards having programs that included people outside our group of knitters, help the local daycare in the community, the online schooling of their kids, even help them set up their own lending cooperative within the community.
Involve them in every step of the business, not just in production
Teach them about pricing, accounting, packaging, rent, consignment, and other parts of the business they may not see. We bring our knitters to some of our pop-ups so they can experience selling (which isn’t always easy!). They also get a chance to see the reactions of people when they see their work and meet the people who buy them. Involving them in the whole business will give them a sense of ownership and make them value it more.
Be open, keep communication open both ways
Involve them in decision-making. I often ask my knitters for their opinions on design, on the color combinations and allow them to give suggestions and experiment with different ways to construct the pattern. They are not afraid to try out new things. Some of our best-selling colors have come from their experiments!
Make sure you have a good product
You want people to buy the product regardless of whether or not it supports a cause, but because it is a good product!
Tell their story
Let people know about the story behind your products. But be sincere and authentic — not just to the community, but also to your customers.
(Probably the hardest lesson!)
Choose to work for something bigger than yourself
When you pursue a purpose, that is what creates true happiness!
Banner and thumbnail caption: Candy Reyes Alipio. Photo by Victor Guerrero