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“Entrepreneurship”: what people do to survive

A young girl, pale and demure with a pair of sad eyes looking up at me, sat in a corner beside the ATM booth near the parking lot far from the main road of Panganiban. The sun’s searing heat was unbearable, so she had to seek cover. She looked tired and weary. In front of her was a small green plastic basin with three bunches of ripe green bananas that she said were still unsold before she could hurry back home. I pointed to the car parked nearby and told her to approach the white-haired man inside to try to offer her wares. I just wanted her to be out of the way because I planned to do my ATM transaction fast, in private. She quickly stood up and ran up the car. I saw my husband roll down the window and, in a few seconds, I knew there was a successful sale. Just as I was about to pick up my cash from the dispenser, the girl came up to me and smiled; her eyes lit up as she said, “Salamat po mam, igwa na po pang-sapna, mapuli na po ako.” So, that was why she was sad-eyed. It was almost noon, and she had to have money to buy and cook rice (sapna) for her family.

The ambulant vendor is Xia, 11, and grade-schooler especially caught my attention as she beamed with pride when she told me she was going home armed with the success of her newfound skills in entrepreneurship. “Nabakal na po,” she replied when I asked what happened to her bunches of bananas. I found out she began peddling fruits, vegetables, “kahit-anu-po” at the age of nine when not in school to help her mother, who works as a labandera, and her father, a pedicab driver to buy food for the family table. Her five other siblings also sell “kahit-and-po” goods outside their home to earn a few pesos for food. I had wanted to engage her in a more extended conversation, but she had to run home “para magsapna.”

Xia was the first of the countless faceless people I encountered as ambulant and sidewalk vendors in one day of travel last Sunday to the Rinconada area where Tabang Bikol Movement conducts its Kurt Aki children program among the poor IP igin every year.

At every market, men and women -young and old- filled the side streets selling assorted goods and negotiating for the best sales. Many carried basketfuls or bags full of fruits and vegetables from the farm to peddle at every vacant space near the Pili, Baao, and Nabua markets. Who would not miss the ambulant vendors selling the freshly steamed mini puto and siomai, inihaw na tilapia, boiled saba, boiled corn on the cob, banana fritters, or our famous turon with langka, streetfoods were everywhere! Across another street, on the edge of the sidewalk, I saw the itinerant peddler selling cigarette sticks to a familiar customer who must be a tricycle driver dancing to the loud music that roared from a carinderia nearby. Everyone has so many things to transact for business, but we know their day-to-day earnings are barely enough for their families to get by. Yet, the entrepreneurial spirit of Filipinos is alive and well!

It was a sight to behold. During the lockdowns, the streets were empty and lonely. Now at Alert Level 2, outdoor activities have returned to life. With most people feeling poorer than ever because of inflation, joblessness, soaring prices of oil, gasoline, fare, and commodities, plus the war in Ukraine, more and more people are going entrepreneurial! Unfortunately, though, the social divide has not created opportunities to improve income equally. Those with better means are making a windfall: the delivery boys who receive extra income with tips from generous customers and the online sellers who are into foods, cosmetics, clothing apparel, pastries, essential oils, gadgets and “kahit-and-po” that are classier and high-end. So brisk is their business that, come rain or shine, for 24 hours, they can turn crises into opportunities to survive.

Social Divide and Entrepreneurship

The word is from a 13th-century French verb “entreprendre” which means “to undertake,” “to pursue opportunities,” or “to fulfil needs and wants” through innovation, new ideas, services, products and start a business from them. At the turn of the 16th century, the word entrepreneur began to refer to anybody who undertakes a business enterprise. India and China are pioneers of this undertaking. The Philippines employs two criteria in defining enterprises into Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) according to employment and assets, and required to pay their statutory obligations. In addition, it follows the definition of international regulatory bodies like the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations. In its HEAL (Health, Environment and Alternative Livelihood) program, TBM is engaged in another kind of entrepreneurship with a social character. (More of this is another column).

Though enterprising in their skills to do business, Xia’s family, as one of the millions of poor peddlers, sellers, and vendors who market their products and services, are out of the Big League. Neither do they belong to the informal sector, where workers, for the most part, are not covered by the country’s labor laws and state regulations. Even in entrepreneurship, there is a sharp social divide and opportunities for growth and change.

Xia’s family is part of the country’s thriving underground economy - also called shadow economy - where transactions of goods or services are unreported to the government and beyond the reach of state regulations like the required licenses and taxes. Yet little known is the fact that this shadow economy props up the country’s economy. The underground economy also includes the persistent problems of illegal drugs, smuggling, gambling, human trafficking, etc. The poor and vulnerable easily fall prey to these anti-social activities.

Many enterprising people work in the underground economy for various reasons: to avoid government fees, licensing requirements, taxes, and increase income. But for Xia’s family and most of the poor population, this mode of entrepreneurship is their way to survive especially during the Pandemic, which resulted in the worst recession since World War II and caused immeasurable hardships worldwide. Abject poverty, joblessness, lack of access to equal opportunities, and social injustice never left them.

With the elections over, people ask: will there be a light at the end of the dark tunnel for those who have long yearned for a bright future?

(Erratum in my last column, May 19, 2022: March 18 should have read May 18. My apology.)


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