Yesterday I returned from a spur-of-the-moment business trip to the Philippines. What an experience, and what a country! Alive, vibrant, and constantly in motion. I quickly fell in love with the friendly people, the beautiful islands, and the terrific food. Although my experience was limited to Cebu City and surrounding municipalities (Carcar, Danao, Lapu-lapu, Mandaue, Naga, and Talisay), I believe that I got a pretty good feel for what the country as a whole -- at least the middle part, the Visayas -- has to offer. As promised in my last post, here is Part 1 of my impressions on the state of entrepreneurship in the Philippines.
First, poverty is widespread in the Philippines. I have visited poor areas many times before, both in the U.S. and overseas, but nothing prepared me for just how widespread and deep poverty is in the Philippines, and how closely it exists to the country's relatively rare islands of prosperity. Says Wikipedia about Cebu City, "...poverty is remarkable all around the city, with traders on most sidewalks and little stores (Sari Sari) dedicated to the sale of very basic grocery items at retail level. Houses are mostly poor and of very basic materials. Roads across the different neighborhoods (Barangays) are not enough for the densely populated city and its cars, adding up to huge traffic jams and extremely slow pace in work hours." Most of my stay was in the Cebu City Marriott, one of the best hotels in this city of more than 2 million people. Walk one block to the southwest, and you arrive at Ayala Center -- one of the largest shopping malls in the city, with more than 85,000 tourists and relatively prosperous locals a day shopping and eating in countless stores and restaurants -- many of which are household names in the United States (more on that in my next post). However, walk one block to the northeast, and you are in an entirely different world -- one filled with crowded sidewalks, old wooden shacks, street vendors selling anything imaginable, and a glimpse of the poverty that pervades much of the rest of the city.
Second, entrepreneurship is not an elective activity in the Philippines as it is in the United States, it is a necessity. When someone here in the U.S. becomes an entrepreneur, he or she most often has the option of being an employee -- of working for an established company. Entrepreneurs in our country are born and driven for a variety of different reasons. Some want to be their own boss, while others want to build their own businesses -- and to reap the financial benefits for themselves. While some American entrepreneurs are likely driven by financial necessity, I suspect this is the exception. Many more in my experience are driven by desire to make a difference in the world around them, using business as a vehicle to achieve their goals. In the Philippines, however, working as an employee is something that the majority of citizens -- many in poverty -- will never have the opportunity to experience. For these Filipinos, starting a business -- any business -- may quite literally mean the difference between life and death.
Third, if there is something to be sold, or some service to be offered in the Philippines, you can bet that there is someone doing it. I was constantly amazed by the variety of business activities that the residents of metropolitan Cebu were engaged in. If someone could cook, then (most often) she had a small stand on the street loaded with hot pots and pans filled with local delicacies offered for sale to locals. If someone could repair metalwork, tires, or radiators, then he had a small streetside shack dedicated to these pursuits. Men and women would set up small tables on the sidewalk to sell fruit, auto parts, toys, clothing, or cooking essentials. And even children were engaged in business activities, scouring the streets, trash cans, and back alleys for any scrap of metal, piece of clothing, or discarded item that could be sold by their parents or extended family in exchange for some precious cash.
I was personally amazed by just how many Philippine people are engaged in entrepreneurial pursuits in the Philippines -- a much greater percentage of the population than I ever imagined before I landed in Cebu City. Entrepreneurship is a vital part of Philippine life, and millions of people depend on it to put food on their tables, educate their children, and simply to survive from one day to the next.
The following video shows a typical streetscene in Cebu City, with all the hustle and bustle fully intact: