On the latter part of 2016, I was featured in a book called "Stories of Purpose" by Under30 Changemakers, an online community of young activist and changemakers around the world. As I was browsing my personal free copy, I got interested on the work of a fellow who was also featured there.
Her name is Lara Frayre, a 27-year-old Social Entrepreneur, Designer, and Eternal Optimist. She founded Batak Craft, a social enterprise that helps the vanishing Batak Tribe of the Philippines survive and thrive in the modern economy. That got me facinated as being an indigenous myself, I am very passionate with helping the community. And the fact that she lives in Quezon City, Philippines stunned me because we're practically neighbors and I haven't known her 'til then! With my giddiness to have a chat with her, it resulted to a coffee invitation and a meaningful conversation.
Batak woman weaving while having her morning coffee.
Photo by Lara Frayre
Gladys: How did Batak Craft start?
Lara: Batak Craft started when I went to Palawan [Philippines] to volunteer for a construction project of a yoga center. A few of our workers are Batak, an indigenous group in Palawan, and that’s when I met them. I took notice of them because of all the workers we had they were the hardest working, the most honest, and the toughest workers.
Then, I made good friends with them and I started doing research about their tribe and that’s when I realized that they were actually a vanishing tribe. An anthropological research dictates that they’re technically going extinct because their population has decreased. And so it all started from there when I knew that they were vanishing and I knew I had to help. They made baskets and mats already and so with my industrial design and visual design background I was able to help them create a brand.
Gladys: What strike you during your immersion that let you know immediately that you can help this tribe?
Lara: The craft was already in place. They already made baskets and crafts with patterns. It is basically inspired by nature, from the rice fields, seas, some others are like snakes, that been theirs all along.
I think my contribution was just to improve it and connect them to the international market who definitely respect enough the craft to pay the right price for it.
One of the challenges they have was when they sell their crafts to local markets, they were always asked for the cheapest price and sometimes the market buyers won’t even pay them unless the product were sold to the costumers. It was very unsustainable for the Batak. What strike them as very special is that they already had the skill, they already had a rich heritage. The danger was losing it to urbanization or modernization.
Photo by Lara Frayre
Gladys: What kind of support do you impart to them for this project?
Lara: At the moment we’re imparting more of values than technical skills. Technically what Batak craft does now is essentially we connect them to the market. As of this point we are not imposing anything to them. We do not give them any designs but through the help of our crowdsourcing campaign we hopefully can help them develop new products. A lot of it has been just teaching them values and helping them get more organized.
It takes time to build trust with them. For us it took years to go back and forth to their places, living with them. And so I think the values that we imparted were critical thinking. As tribes, they were a bit gullible. What we wanted to impart to them was to make them think outside of their boundaries, to always question things. And from there they can start thinking about entrepreneurship because it’s still a very long gap under their state of mind right now. We’re trying to build the foundations first which is to cultivate the values and once we have that framework in place then it’s easy to teach them some other stuff already because they will now be mentally, emotionally, and culturally prepared for it.
Photo by Lara Frayre
Gladys: From the research you conducted to now, what has been the progress so far?
Lara: The formal research stated around October 2014 with me and my team going around to different Batak settlements just riding a motorcycle and trekking mountains.
Ever since then, we have been able to document their culture and get some interest from some countries and partner with some of them. Lately we’ve partnered with Coopita, a marketplace in Singapore. Actually right now Coopita is helping us fund our campaign. The process has been a bit difficult since I funded the entire thing at first. I had to go to Manila to work and if I have enough money saved up I go back again to Palawan. But hopefully if everything goes well, this could be a full-time job for me. Currently I have been working as a graphic designer.
Gladys: Do you have a team working for the Batak craft?
Lara: We are actually a small team of two, me and Jun. Jun handles the on the ground operations and I connect the brand to the investors.
Gladys: What challenges have you overcome? Do you have some challenges you are facing right now?
Lara: One challenge that we overcome is the establishment of good relationship with the tribe.
One of the challenges we are facing right now is that we need help in scaling. We already have the interest abroad but in terms of resources we currently do not have enough manpower and financial resources to be able to cater to those interests which is why we’re crowdfunding this campaign so that we can collect enough start up money to be able to produce our first ever pioneer batch of baskets. We have already been selling. We’ve already sold baskets to India and we’re about to sell in Singapore but this doesn’t guarantee of having a physical store yet so hopefully with the crowdfunding campaign we can scale our operations and hopefully to hire more team members and have a steady office in Palawan.
Lara with the Batak community
Photo by Lara Frayre
Gladys: Any words of wisdom to those people who have the same passion as you have?
Lara: I can say that let your values guide you because values ties with identity and so regardless of what you choose to do, be a changemaker in your own way. To have the value of knowing how to help, just listen to that voice. There will be challenges and I experienced a lot of them. There was even a time when I was so broke and the tribe was the one feeding us because we had an overbudget. I cried because of that. But if all went down, just hold on to the thought that this will amount to something even though you can’t see it right now. If you have that passion for something, somehow the universe will conspire and will eventually make it happen.