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A Pathway to Entrepreneurship for Sulu Women

August 17, 2022

By Jerryll Reyes

The seaside community of Badjao in the municipality of Hadji Panglima Tahil, Sulu Province (photo: Gagandilan Mindanao Women, Inc.)

Dotted with beautiful beaches and rich in history as the former home of the Sultanate of Sulu, the Sulu Archipelago, extending from the southern Philippines to Malaysia, is an island province of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, commonly known as the BARMM. Prior to the creation of the BARMM as a self-governing region of the Philippines in 2019, this poor and largely Muslim territory suffered for years from separatist and intercommunal violence and persistent underdevelopment. Both the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were active in the archipelago, which was also home to the Abu Sayaff Group, a splinter group of the MNLF that engaged in kidnap-for-ransom and other terrorist activities.

While the creation of the BARMM has ushered in a new era of peace and the prospect of progress and economic development, Sulu, like other provinces of the BARMM, still registers high rates of poverty, with the nation’s highest unemployment, lowest access to banking, and lowest household incomes. These economic disadvantages fall especially hard on women. A baseline survey by The Asia Foundation conducted in 2020 found that barely half of female respondents (50.3 percent) had a job or a business, and that most women who did have a livelihood were engaged in small-scale, informal businesses such as the home-based convenience stores known as a sari saris, backyard farming, or selling local delicacies in public markets.

Like the Bangsamoro region more generally, Sulu also suffers from the lingering psycho-social effects of years of conflict, and women have been particularly affected, whether as former combatants themselves or as widows and survivors left to provide for their families.

Opportunities for Women Entrepreneurs

Peace has brought new hope to Sulu for progress and economic development, including greater economic participation for women. Despite temporary setbacks due to the Covid pandemic, several plans to develop the BARMM are underway. In Sulu, business and tourism are reported to be booming, offering a unique opportunity to consolidate the gains of the peace process and promote economic development, particularly for Sulu women.

Amid these signs of opportunity, The Asia Foundation and several local partners have launched Accelerate Women’s Entrepreneurship for Peace and Prosperity, or ACCELERATE, a program supported by USAID, Australian DFAT, and the Visa Foundation that promotes livelihoods for vulnerable and marginalized women in Sulu and the BARMM by helping them acquire skills and training, facilitating access to markets and capital, and linking women entrepreneurs to partnerships, coaching, and mentoring support. In Sulu, The Asia Foundation implements the project in partnership with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

Two girls in Sulu working on their embroidery (photo: Marge Obligacion)

Most of the women participating in ACCELERATE are former combatants, wives or family of former combatants, or previous victims of violent extremism. Among the key elements of the program is training in branding and marketing for women with existing small businesses. Participants learn how to better present their products and how to join the booming digital economy to engage customers online. Small grants are provided as additional capital to some of the women entrepreneurs to help them expand their businesses.

To broaden their customer base, ACCELERATE helped organize a product exhibition in Metro Manila for the artisanal products of Sulu women. This was the first time that the unique textiles and woven products from Sulu had received a national showcase, and in the future ACCELERATE plans to continue supporting access to wider markets for Sulu products.

Success Stories

Recently, a number of Sulu women shared with us their stories of personal success and how their families and communities had rallied to support their entrepreneurial journeys. Ayang Muksan is a former combatant who was captured and detained in Malaysia for six months along with her two children. To rebuild her life in Sulu and support her young family, Ayang started a small business weaving colorful mats. Since her training with ACCELERATE, she has begun to expand her business and market her products at trade fairs.

Nursima Juhaili showing one of their embroidered products (photo: Marge Obligacion)

Aspiring entrepreneur Nursima Juhaili wanted to try her luck working in other countries as an Overseas Filipino Worker, but her father had heard stories about the risks to women living and working abroad and would not give her permission. Instead, Nursima was able to get training from ACCELERATE in food production and entrepreneurship. She became the team leader of a women’s association that produces seaweed crackers, seaweed noodles, papaya pickles, and fish balls. For Nursima, the skills and knowledge that she and her associates gained from ACCELERATE “are worth more than a million pesos and inspired us to work better for ourselves and for our families.”

In November 2021, I had occasion to attend a graduation ceremony in Luuk, Sulu, for 104 women who had received training from Sinagtala, one of ACCELERATE’s partner organizations. Sinagtala combines training in skills such as weaving with psycho-social counseling and support. Some of the graduates also received training in product development and marketing and have started to find wider markets for their products.

The Road Ahead

The journey to entrepreneurship for the women of Sulu is not yet complete. Access to finance remains one of the stumbling blocks to growth for small businesses in the Philippines, especially in the BARMM. The central bank’s Report on the State of Financial Inclusion in the Philippines 2018 found that citizens of the BARMM were unbanked in 108 out of 118 local government jurisdictions, and 92 percent of the region overall does not have banking access. ACCELERATE’s own baseline research confirmed that financial and digital inclusion were central challenges to women’s entrepreneurship in Sulu.

This problem is compounded by low awareness among otherwise eligible businesses of the financial services that are available from banks and microfinance institutions, despite the strong interest in obtaining these services among micro-entrepreneurs seeking capital to grow their businesses. ACCELERATE is already working with local banks and microfinance institutions to address this and similar issues.

Meanwhile, the rise of the digital economy represents both an opportunity and a challenge for Sulu’s women entrepreneurs, due to uneven access to digital services and poor internet connectivity in many parts of the BARMM. This is another potential area of policy work for ACCELERATE, and we are currently piloting an online platform to help them link with global markets and network with other entrepreneurs.

At this auspicious time in the BARMM, the women of Sulu are showing that they have tremendous potential to grow, adapt, and succeed. Entrepreneurship is one important pathway to an economic future that will translate into improved gender equality and greater power for women to chart their own futures for themselves and their families.

Jerryll Reyes is The Asia Foundation’s project manager for ACCELERATE in the Philippines. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

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