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A Coop’s ‘fashionable’ success

Alma gonzales 1Palanan is one of the coastal towns of Isabela province which one can only reach by plane or by a 6-8 hour motorized boat from Dilasag, Aurora Province.  Palanan is known as the keeper of the fine and smooth Sabutan leaves – a highly priced fiber in the world of fashion – inspiring many of its residents to build livelihoods such as fans and hats-making using the leaves as the primary raw material.
 
Mrs. Alma Parika Gonzales, 50 years old, a farmer, strong-willed leader and entrepreneur was born in Nueva Ecija and is married to Alberto M. Gonzales, a native of Palanan, Isabela. She began to learn the craft of making fans, bags and hats out of Sabutan leaves as she developed the heart for the people of Palanan.
 
With her skillful hands dexterously knitting the strong-textured Sabutan leaves, her
business continued to flourish steadily. In the wake of her success, she was awarded as the Best Entre-Pinoy in Cagayan Valley for promoting Sabutan products. Presently, Alma Gonzales serves as the Operations Manager of Palanan Wilderness Development Cooperative (PWDeCo) – a cooperative that produces and sells Sabutan products, such as bags, fans, sombrero and souvenir items.
 
In 1994, Gonzales worked in the Conservation of Priority Projects in Protected Area Program under World Bank where she was assigned in Palanan, Isabela as Community Organizer.  It was the first NGO with development projects in the area.  As community organizer, she initiated the exploration study assessing Palanan as a protected area. She is also an accredited tourist guide for the Sierra Madre Region and Region 2 by the Department of Tourism.
 
According to her, Sabutan is a plant found anywhere in the place.  Most of the household know how to make fans and hats wholly made out of the leaves. With nothing more than the abundant leaves to create saleable products, this home-based business is highly lucrative venture.
 
Her involvement with the Cooperative started when a group of women from a former association composed of weavers of Sabutan products consulted her after encountering problems with their production and marketing. They reported instances of exploitation by traders in the area because their products were bought at a very low price and even taken from them for free.
 
Gonzales saw the need to re-organize the group and facilitate cooperative training of the members. Upon undertaking such re-organization, a training skill under the Cottage Industry Technology Center (formerly NACIDA) was conducted. She then founded the PWDeCo in 2003 with 41 all women members and 265 probable members. In 2004, she became the President of the Cooperative. The Cooperative business is a home-based industry or a household enterprise. Finished products were delivered every Sunday in the cooperative display center.
 
The cooperative started with a very minimal working capital of P16,000  plus a P50,000-grant under her management. Today, the cooperative have an asset of more than P200,000.
 
Under her active coordination, the Department of Agrarian Reform began to intervene in the promotion and marketing of their Sabutan products.  DAR even provided the cooperative free freight of their products to Manila, product assessment and enhancement training.
 
Their market expanded when DAR included her in Agraryo trades fairs both in National and Regional where market linkages were established.  It was also in the 1st Agraryo Trade Fair in SM Megamall when they met officers from Peace & Equity Foundation which granted them 50,000 pesos additional capital.
 
Gonzales and all the members of the PWDeCo has gained so big a market that their capacity to supply is currently needing a boost. The coop now looks forward to acquiring modern technologies in the production of Sabutan products like machine dryer and slicer as products are still manually made.
 
Despite the odds encountered by members of the cooperative, Alma Gonzales remains optimistic in expanding their venture internationally. PWDeCo is focused on their motto “Never underestimate what a small group of people can do to change the world.”

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