Despite on-going challenges in logistics and strict health protocols, the Enhanced Manufacturing of Protective Wear and Equipment for COVID-19 Response in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (EMPOWER-BARMM) project is in full throttle. Around 30 members from selected sewing groups in the provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi were recently provided a series of trainings on how to manufacture various kinds of personal protective equipment (PPEs), while more than a hundred other seamstresses are learning the proper way of sewing them.
Equipped with additional sewing machines and raw materials from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Embassy of Japan in the Philippines, the women groups hope to soon leverage the ongoing demand for safe and quality PPEs not just in their communities, but in other parts of the country as well.
With already existing vulnerabilities, the communities in BARMM are disproportionately affected by the social and economic impact of COVID-19. EMPOWER BARMM aims to help alleviate the economic challenges posed by the pandemic by providing women entrepreneurs alternative livelihood opportunities.
These are the #EmpoweredWomen of BARMM at the forefront of this project.
Twenkie Dalgan is the Chairperson of Bulalo Sitio Inol Producer Cooperative in Maguindanao. Twenkie and her community members are weavers of inol/inaul, a traditional, colorful, intricately designed Maguindanaon clothing piece. Twenkie has been a member since 2006, when the cooperative started, and recalls that their earnings from weaving were enough to support her family. Orders were piled up before the pandemic, but because of quarantine restrictions, they could not get access to raw materials, which were only available in the city.
“A lot of our resources were inaccessible, so we had to halt operations. As a result, our members have been inactive. When I asked around for help, one of them suggested that we try making face masks. We are weavers and very few of us had basic sewing skills, so we started practicing with whatever cloths were available. With little DIY (Do It Yourself) skills, we were able to pull off a few hundred rough pieces a week,” Twenkie noted.
In July 2021, UNDP and Embassy of Japan in the Philippines donated sewing equipment and raw materials to more than 20 sewing groups in BARMM to use during their training in manufacturing PPEs. Now, Twenkie and her group are equipped with additional sewing machines, new skills and confidence.
“It was intimidating at first because I had no formal training in sewing, and no experience reading technical packs. At first, I told the other members that I cannot do it. But I realized that people were kind enough to trust us with this project, so I should at least try. With our training from EMPOWER BARMM and enough practice, our members and I are somehow getting the hang of it,” she added.
Lara Sadang learned how to weave when she was in grade six and said that it was a side-hustle that helped her earn her school allowance. Now with a family of her own, she lives in Bulalo Sito Luya, and is now the Secretary of the of their inaul weavers’ group. According to Lara, orders before the pandemic were continuous and came from various clienteles, including schools, accessories, and general apparel stores, and even wedding organizers. But the abrupt implementation of lockdowns in their area forced them to stop operations.
“I had no other source of income, so I was forced to use up all my savings. I don’t have a lot, so in less than two weeks, I had nothing left. I remember one day, Twenkie invited me to train with EMPOWER BARMM. As a college undergraduate, free trainings were my way to learn new things. It sounded like it could provide me an alternative source of income, and I had a lot of extra time, so I said yes,” said Lara.
During the lockdowns, Lara noticed the surge in demand for CFCs (Community Face Coverings) and was interested in making them, but she did not know how to and had no resources to start with. Now, she hopes to support the initiative by teaching the rest of her 50 fellow cooperative members to sew different protective wear items.
“Everyone has their own challenges in life. My colleagues and I have our own struggles, too; and if you think about it, weaving inauls is way more complicated than sewing PPEs. The idea of people using our PPEs to save their lives made me feel nervous, but I know that feeling overwhelmed is part of the challenge. So, I drew my inspiration from the people who have struggled just the same but was able to learn from square one, and just went with it.”
Norhaima Ibrahim Mendoza worked her way through college as a garment seamstress with the Maguindanao Development Catalyst. Being a young member of MADECA, she said that they made sure that every member earned from sewing. According to her, many felt that the transition from manufacturing regular clothing items to different types of protective wear was challenging and can be frustrating sometimes because of added quality measures assurance. For her, it inspired a different reaction—she was excited.
“We were tagged as the COVID-19 batch and as fresh graduates of 2020, we had no idea what’s in store for us. When colleagues from the Ministry of Basic, Higher and Technical Education-Technical Education and Skills Development of BARMM told us about the training opportunity from EMPOWER BARMM, I signed up right away. I did not see the shift in production requirements as an obstacle, but instead, a new opportunity to learn. And since there is a constant demand for PPEs and face masks, I knew that there are income opportunities there.”
Norhaima is a graduate of Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education. And even though she remains hopeful, she knows that there is a slim chance that she will land a teaching job during the pandemic. Therefore, according to her, versatility is one of the keys to surviving these tough times.
She notes that “Every member should benefit from the organization and EMPOWER BARMM has strengthened our group by building our skills to give back not just to our members, but to our families and community, as well. This experience is unmatchable.”
Samera Abuat was a former Overseas Filipino Worker and is now the co-founder / chairperson of their 25-member Pasad sa Ranaw Handicraft Producers Cooperative in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur.
“We manufactured souvenir items that promoted our culture as Maranaos. Our products imbibed our identity, showcasing vibrant colors and intricate lines and shapes. We would like to think that sewing PPEs is not that different. This time, we want to promote the culture of being safe and protected which are reflected in the protective wear that we manufacture. The new production guidelines may be strict and challenging but they will help both our cooperative and our buyers survive the pandemic.”
Even before the pandemic, they sold their products online and according to Samera, EMPOWER PH’s online platform could multiply their marketing window while there is still limited mobilization during the pandemic. With strong entrepreneurial mindsets, her group is optimistic that they will survive the ongoing crisis.
Sohayla Pacalna of the Marawi Souvenir Social Enterprises recalled that they used to join exhibits and expos to showcase and sell their products. According to her, a good amount of their revenue came from face-to-face interaction with their buyers and clients.
“We are not new to sewing—in fact our group thrived with hand-sewn items and we're proud every time we put them on display. I believe transitioning from producing regular souvenir items to PPEs and CFCs will not be that hard. But using a more modern platform to sell will be the challenge.”
The 54-year-old seamstress admitted to feeling worried about having to shift in production requirements and medium in selling but said that team effort is their advantage.
“We want to represent the women from our city and convey a message. Marawi has been under different crises in the previous years, and we continue to stand and adapt to challenges presented to us. Maranaos are known to be among the bravest people in the Philippines and the women of our cooperative’s fight to survive the pandemic is a testament to that.”
As the impact of COVID-19 continues to disrupt business operations and affect communities and families across the country, the seamstresses of EMPOWER BARMM choose to go on by inspiring one another. Under the project, and with their own branding, they will soon be allowed to sell their manufactured PPEs on the EMPOWER PH platform. Products in the platform go through a government-approved five-point vetting process first, an essential requirement to ensure that their products effectively provide protection from the virus.
For more information, you may check EMPOWER PH online.