By Amanda Klassen
Cuso International Volunteer, Business and Product Development Specialist
My professional background is product design and I’ve helped clients internationally develop new products or improve them to grow their business. Through this process, I’ve learned many methods in human-centered design which eventually led me to be very curious about humanity outside of what I’ve learned in the Western World. I was looking for greater challenges, which I know is always right outside my comfort zone. This led me to a well-suited volunteer placement at Cuso International Philippines as a Business and Product Design Specialist.
As a Cuso International Philippines volunteer, I was placed at Basey Association of Native Industry Growth (BANIG), a social enterprise supporting the livelihoods of rural women weavers in Basey, Samar, Philippines. These expert women weavers became famous for making mats woven from tikog reeds, which are indigenous to the area and sustainably grown and harvested. Banig literally means mat in English.
Along with PKKK (the National Rural Women’s Coalition), BANIG seeks the empowerment of women weavers through its programs and engages with the government to ensure the communities where the members live receive assistance and protection. As BANIG members continue to build their businesses, I support them in mastering the basics of running a business that is sustainable and market-driven, and help them expand into the next phase of their business growth.
My initial experience working with BANIG and PKKK was delightful, but it came with many challenges. My first day included a meeting with Anita Ogrimen, President of BANIG. All the women were shouting in their Waray and I understood very little but tracked everything I could. What I came to learn, was that shouting is vibrancy. It’s positive; it’s passion, ambition, and getting things done. Once we spent more time together, and we became more comfortable, this became clear and I absolutely adore their energy. It’s contagious.
Prior to my arrival in the Philippines, I had many big ideas I wanted to pursue and I was losing sleep with excitement. I quickly started to learn that none of these ideas were possible. I felt like I was hitting road block after road block. I had to reimagine a business without email or internet. I had to rethink how to run a business. I had to pause and be more open to learn where I really need to start.
So I took the first phase as discovery and heavily focused on field research and observation. This was my priority while I started initiating marketing assets for my team. There were many opportunities in the first month for excursions, including field research and meetings with government officials like those with the Department of Trade and Industry Philippines. During this time, my list of obstacles continued to grow, but so did my insight and relationship with my team.
One of the most enriching activities I’ve done so far was taking part in a tikog harvest. I value immersive research—stepping into the shoes of others. I need to experience what others have to gain empathy and be more realistic about what’s possible, and my team has been extremely accommodating.
At harvest, all my senses were at play while hard at work. We were all in rubber boots in the muddy wetlands of Barangay Bacubac at about 8 o’clock in the morning. Although it was overcast, I quickly began to sweat and burn. We bundled our fresh tikog by tying it with the grass itself. I was so inspired by the scenic environment that when I went home, I created a Pantone colour palette to capture the burnt colour of the tikog flowers and the bright highlights of the grass.
Because of this opportunity, I learned more about the production cycle and what potential businesses should anticipate if they are interested in partnering with us. This helps me advise how we can educate the value of BANIG’s products for their customers.
Everyday seems to present a new challenge, but my team continues to inspire me. I grew up in a small town of Nelson, B.C., Canada. My experience of small towns is that people find more comfort in the same routine. This is not the case with BANIG. These rural women are agents of change and are some of the most adaptable women I’ve met. Every month the leaders are in seminars or teaching workshops. They’re thirsty to learn and network. They embody leadership qualities that I believe can lead their organization into transformation.
This is the meaningful work that I look forward to. My team has made me feel protected and valued—just like one of them. I’m not entirely certain what the rest of our outputs will look like yet, but I know we’ll have fun doing it, and I look forward to sharing more.