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Disrupt the way we educate: SEED comes to Bukidnon

Not your run-of-the-mill school, SEED is an anti-poverty platform that uses start-up thinking to equip young social entrepreneurs with the tools they need to shape the world they want.

No one told us we could make something of our lives. We were poor, but I’ve found out that being poor is also a mindset and behavior... Step by step, through guidance from GK leaders and SEED teachers, I learned right from wrong. I started to believe there was hope in life. - Danilo Ablen, SEED Graduate and Co-founder of OH!GK

Danilo Ablen spent much of his childhood living under a bridge in Baliwag, Bulacan. Until he was nearly 10 years old, he sifted through garbage, collecting bottles, cans, and scrap metal to sell to junk shops. He and his three other siblings survived on the leftovers his mother, a single parent and laundrywoman, would bring home from her second job working at a canteen. Danilo would not have known any other life but poverty and scavenging had a local priest not taken the family under his wing right after Danilo’s sister died from leukemia. A few years later, another sister would die of heart failure. The priest wrote to Gawad Kalinga, who immediately helped Danilo and his family get a house in the nearby GK community in Angat, Bulacan.

Five years after moving into a proper home, Danilo enrolled in the School of Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development, an offshoot of GK and its social entreprise arm.

Life was still a struggle for Danilo. He was a truant and kept getting into trouble with his teachers. Everything came to a head when he was caught being intimate with a classmate which was against the school rules. “I had to take responsibility. Part of what SEED teaches us is to be men of honor,” he says. The disciplinary action given to Danilo was eight days of hard, solitary labor. He was asked to dig a fishpond. “Looking back, I see it was necessary. I learned something about myself: that I am worth something. I didn’t have to end up like my dad, who ran away from everything. I finally learned that I could be a real man.”

Soon after the incident, Danilo came up with OhGK! as part of his enterprise development project, a health drink made from oregano, honey, ginger, and kalamansi. The immune-boosting recipe was inspired by his family members who suffered severe health issues that could’ve been prevented with a more nutritious diet. A graduate of SEED’s second batch, Danilo is now 23 years old. He had a hard time growing his business at first but he kept at it, and over two years it has made over one million pesos. OhGK! can now be found at the Salcedo Market, the GK Enchanted Farm, and is sold at bazaars and corporate events. Danilo has plans to scale up to producing 210,000 bottles every three months. Farmers in Bulacan who were initially burning the oregano plants that grew on their plots are now earning P50 per kilo, and Danilo has provided them with two hectares of land to grow more oregano.

“No one told us we could make something of our lives,” Danilo says of his years growing up. “We were poor, but I’ve found out that being poor is also a mindset and behavior.” When he first became a GK beneficiary, he would steal watermelons from the farm to sell on the side. “Step by step, through guidance from GK leaders and SEED teachers, I learned right from wrong. I started to believe there was hope in life.” Today, his ultimate dream is to help the community under the bridge. “If my product is successful, I will definitely go back to provide hope. They are just waiting for an opportunity. I will tell them, if I can be successful, you can do it too, and you can do it with me.”

Danilo’s story is just one of the several positive stories to come out of the SEED program, an experimental, alternative, TESDA-accredited schooling system that targets marginalized students from rural areas, or “young people with big dreams who were never given a chance,” as SEED director Mark Lawrence Cruz puts it.

“SEED is an anti-poverty platform that focuses on social education. There are many scholarships out there for the poor, but they end up occupying jobs that are not really designed to get them out of poverty soon,” Mark explains. “The poor have been poor for so long, we’re looking for solutions that will teach people how to get out of poverty in the shortest amount of time and take as many people along as possible.”

The school focuses on agriculture mainly because so many of the poor live in rural areas. “The hungriest people are those who are planting food and catching fish. It’s social injustice,” says Mark. The Philippines has very fertile land, yet agricultural schools in the country are closing down and the average age of farmers is in the early 60s. Farming is not a very attractive vocation, because farmers do not get to reap what they sow. The school intends to change that, one community at a time.

Since it launched in 2014, the school has graduated 102 scholars, and aims to graduate 5,000 more over the next five to ten years. SEED was the first in the country to offer a certificate in social entrepreneurship, with a curriculum based on seven different pillars: agriculture, agro-processing, enterprise development, computation, communication, contextualization, and character development. The schedule is intensive as there’s a lot to pack into two year’s worth of learning. While the curriculum is intense—with the students taught to develop their skills in areas like communication, critical thinking, collaboration and problem-solving—the learning atmosphere is communal and collegial. Students learn in teams and much of the work is hands-on, and as with any agricultural school, learning is close to the soil.

SEED has graduated 102 scholars since it began in 2014 in Angat, Bulacan. It aims to graduate 5,000 more over the next five to ten years.

The SEED campus is a sprawling organic farm where a close-knit group of students, teachers, and international interns live and work together. Students are awake as early as 5 a.m. and out farming at 6 a.m. Depending on the subject for the day, they might be tending to their herbs in makeshift greenhouses, or planting vegetables in the garden, or even preparing pig slop for their hogs. By 9 a.m. formal classroom learning and workshops start, and the students learn everything from identifying different varieties of plants to how best to market their products. By 4 p.m., it’s back to farming again. After dinner, the students gather for meetings in the dorms. The Enchanted Farm is a favorite with French volunteers and interns, many of whom come to teach classes on such things as cheese making and product design. A number often end up staying for years and as a result, some of the more intrepid students have learned conversational French.

Joyce Ecalia, a 19-year-old second-year SEED student from Palawan, remembers her apprehensions prior to joining the program. “I was told you had to wake up early to plant,” she says. “I never wanted to be a farmer. It’s hot, it’s hard work and people think lowly of you.” But as Joyce went through her first year of rigorous training and character development, she had a change of heart. “My favorite subject is now agriculture. Our country needs more farmers.” Her business idea is to produce organic fertilizer, having identified a need in Palawan, where the mining industry is destroying the soil.

Another student, Mona Lisa Fuentes from Iloilo, shares how SEED helps instill values, and not just teach academics. “They let you grow on your own, to realize who you are as a person and how you can help the world.” Fuentes, who is 21, had to drop out of college when her mother, the breadwinner of the family, lost her job. She entered SEED through its recruitment camp, where applicants have to undergo a screening process involving specific challenges.

SEED looks for students from the bottom of the pyramid who exhibit a predisposition to entrepreneurship and show leadership qualities. Mona Lisa proved to be an ideal candidate, as she really wanted to finish school and was motivated to improve her parents’ situation. Her strength despite emotional turmoil served as an example to her younger classmates, who look up to her like an older sister. “I realized being an ate (big sister) was something I couldn’t be to my younger siblings, but now I’m an ate to my classmates.”

Looking to scale its impact through education, San Miguel Corporation is partnering with SEED to support its advocacy of building young entrepreneurs and leaders who can create economic and social value particularly in agricultural communities. San Miguel funded SEED’s first junior-year incubator and accelerator program, helping the graduates better realize their business dreams by providing seed money to cover operational expenses, initial capitalization, business registrations, mentoring, and access to markets. The year-long immersion into the accelerator program helped pioneer graduates like Danilo get his OhGK! business off the ground.

When SEED began thinking about replicating their program around the country and thought they would need another GK village to do so, SMC offered its community facilities in Sumilao, Bukidnon. The company has a state-of-the-art hog farm in Sumilao that employs many locals, but they wanted to maximize the impact of the community-training center they had built there in 2010. In addition, the company gave three hectares of land for the students to farm. SMC has a long history with Sumilao farmers and had pledged to improve their lives. Thus, a second partnership with SEED was born.

SEED looks for students from the bottom of the pyramid who exhibit a predisposition to entrepreneurship and show leadership qualities. The program is designed for them to build their own social enterprises, one that will not only help themselves but others as well.

Through SEED, Danilo Alben went from living under a bridge to the head of his own thriving business. With OhGK!, a heath drink he worked on as a student, he has scaled up to sell and work with several clients as well as provide a new source of income for farmers.

Growing up Joyce Ecalia never wanted to become a farmer but through SEED, she has now seen the value and agriculture. The second-year student hopes to develop her own organic fertiliser to help combat the effects of the mining industry on the soil.

Monalisa Fuentes had to drop out of college due to financial constraints when her mother lost her job. She has gotten a second chance at SEED through its recruitment camp. Determined to finish her schooling and to improve her family's situation, her perseverance is why so many of her fellow students see her as their ate, someone who they can look up to

Says Jennifer Rodriguez, a 16-year veteran at San Miguel Foundation and project head of the SMC-SEED tie-up, “We value our host communities. We do not just do business, we take care of the communities where we operate and provide programs that will help them in the future. With SEED, we are creating business partners, not just employees. Since we’re a food company, it’s an inclusive business approach.”

Sixteen-year-old Jholo Sayam is one of SEED’s students from Mindanao and a member of the Higaonon tribe in Bukidnon. He started working in the fields harvesting corn while he was in elementary school. Most people in the farming community he grew up in end up working in the pineapple industry. “I had no plans for life,” he says. “I didn’t want to do agriculture because that’s what I’ve been doing. But here at SEED, I found my purpose.” Jholo is learning enterprise development and has decided he wants to work with coffee, since he comes from a family of cocoa farmers. Despite finding his classes tough—he finds French especially hard—he says he’s been having a great time in the program. “San Miguel and SEED have helped unlock the potential of young people like me, giving us hope in life.”

The new campus in Bukdinon is initially recruiting 30 individuals from the area.

SEED eventually plans to implement community expertise training to nearby communities, and tap into other centers that San Miguel already has. “We’re going to give more opportunities and open doors to the poor and reach people below the poverty line,” says Max Rebucan, the administration head of the Bulacan campus.

“SMC’s expertise is in agriculture and food; SEED’s is in education and agriculture,” says Mark. “Bringing the two platforms together make for a powerful partnership, our contribution to building our nation. We’re thankful to SMC for helping us bring our program to the front lines of poverty.”

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