Dugui Too, Virac housewife Arlene Panti Cabrera, who recently won as Best DOLE-Assisted Livelihood Project Implementer (Individual Category), started her coconut handicraft business using P3,000 savings from her previous job in Metro Manila.
In an interview with the Tribune at her small shop in the hinterland barangay, the 35-year-old entrepreneur recalled that after finishing food technology at a TESDA school, she went to Metro Manila where she first worked in a call center in Quezon City.
Arlene said she enrolled in an education course but could not finish it as she suffered a succession of illnesses from 2005 to 2010 kept her from school.
At the call center, she was in charge of the issuance of office supplies and when the business ceased to operate, she was rehired by her boss as his personal assistant, bringing her whenever he traveled around the country.
It was during this stint at the Eastwood call center when she met security guard Jobel Cabrera, a native of Ogbong, Viga who was a year older and was working at the same area.
The courtship was short, the two got married and her subsequent pregnancy prompted them to decide to come home to her parents in Dugui Too in 2013.
The following year, their only child, Jaz Adrian, was born.
At the time, it was only her husband who was working as a security guard in the capital town.
In 2018, when the boy was five years old, Arlene decided to use her remaining P3,000 savings to start the handicraft business, noting many discarded coconut shells lying around.
Using the tip of an ordinary knife to cut holes in the shells, she began making table lamps, based on designs drawn by Jobel on her instruction.
As they had no other tool at the time, they rented a grinder from a neighbor to cut the shells.
Aside from salvaging shells from the neighborhood. Arlene usually buys the smaller coconut shells from Viga town, which a van delivers to Virac in batches of 250 to 300 pieces.
At the start, she was able to finish only one table lamp a month, with the product bought by Pinoy Lingap Damayan Multipurpose Cooperative (PLDC) for P600 each.
Making big steps from their first participation in the Abaca Festival, she and Jobel – who had learned the craft during his off-duty time – now makes two table lamps a day, about 50 pen holders costing P50-P60 as well as keychains that sell for P30 each.
In 2021, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) selected her as its livelihood assistance beneficiary, for which she received nearly P30,000 in tools including a bench drill, grinder and a pyrography kit.
This was followed by another set of tools from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which prodded her to participate in the Orgullo Kan Bicol (OKB) regional trade fair in Metro Manila.
Her products soon gained popularity among local buyers, including resort owners who display the items at their establishments, couples who use them as wedding souvenirs and balikbayans who bring them home as gifts.
Arlene said she recently received an order for 40 table lamps which she said is her bestseller.
Sometimes, customers ask her to use smaller holes or do a specific design or arrangement of holes that reflects the design on the wall when the lamp is switched on.
“Masakit magtransport,” she told the Tribune, referring to the rough mountainous road to her barangay that forces her to hire a top-down tricycle to ensure that the items are not damaged during the trip.
Now, her father – a long-time barangay official – helps with the work at times, along with the three other residents she hires to work on the shells.
Her business – JAZ Handicraft – also procures abaca string from a rope maker in the village.
The growing enterprise prompted the couple to buy a nearby lot on which their 3-meter by 3-meter makeshift shop now stands, as they have decided to renovate their old shop into their own residence.
The “new” shop actually consists of four “bilogon” or round wooden poles walled with used wooden planks, with its used GI roofing resting on bamboo rafters.
To shield those inside from the heat, a thin sakoline tarp has been laid between the GI roofing and the rafter.
Displayed along with Arlene’s products are some caragumay bags already wrapped in clear plastic and ready for delivery.
The native bags are the product of Coribato Abaca Farmers Association (CORAFAS) Abaca Paper Making Center headed by Dolores Marquez as president.
The 45-member group underwent Farmers’ Field School courtesy of the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilFIDA) and the local government of Virac.
It is among the recipients of a $250,000 grant awarded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation (PDRF), which conducted training sessions on business continuity with three batches of small business owners and while also distributing cash to more than 1,600 abaca farmers.
Her membership in CORAFAS has led to her adding another raw material to her products: abaca fiber and handmade paper.
The Cabreras’ handicraft shop and the CORAFAS venture are the lone fiber processors in the three-barangay Dugui area, which has nearly 1,800 hectares of abaca farms tilled by 756 farmers.
Arlene nearly didn’t make it to the DOLE Bicol Kabuhayan Awards 2023 as TD Amang prevented her from traveling to the mainland ahead of the April 14 event.
With the storm signal lifted on that day itself, she finally got on the ferry and arrived at the venue late for the program.
“I did not expect to win, although I was not able to see the works of the five other entries,” she said, adding that she was not confident of her products due to lack of experience.
“I could not believe it when my name was called,” Arlene recalls.
The P30,000 prize, which has yet to be downloaded to her bank account, will be used to purchase carving and cutting tools.
As the Regional Winner, she will represent DOLE Bicol in the DOLE National Kabuhayan Awards 2023, which aims to recognize and reward outstanding individuals, groups, and organizations that have shown exemplary achievements and contributions in the field of livelihood and entrepreneurship.
The competition is part of DOLE’s efforts to promote and support the growth and development of micro, small, and medium enterprises in the country.
She has much to thank DOLE, especially with her selection as the lone DILP beneficiary in Catanduanes.
The program has helped her improve her skills and knowledge in handicraft-making and provided her with the necessary resources and tools, enabling her to produce high-quality products, she said in an interview.
As one of the only four entrepreneurs engaged in coconut handicraft in the province, she said the extra income has allowed the family to eat what they could not afford in the past, as well as provide for their son’s needs and medical expenses.
Indeed, the Cabreras have risen from a struggling young family although a lot more challenges lie ahead.