OFWs As Entrepreneurs

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Business & Society
July 7, 2008

                               OFWs AS ENTREPRENEURS

     In downtown Barcelona is a Catholic church dedicated to St. Augustine. Although it is

called San Agustin by the Spanish parishioners, it has another name to the thousands of

Filipino workers in Barcelona. During some hours of the week, especially on Sundays, it is

known as the parish of the Immaculate Conception and San Lorenzo Ruiz. In a time sharing

scheme, the large Gothic church is shared by the Spanish and Filipino Catholics who go there

to worship. The parish priest of the Filipinos is Fr. Bernie Alejo sent by the Diocese of

Cavite to take care of the Filipino immigrants in Barcelona. During the Tagalog Mass on

Sunday, the Church is filled to the rafters and the singing reverberates in this old barrio of

Barcelona. Many of my Spanish friends tell me how they admire the piety of the Filipinos.

In fact, some of them deliberately attend the Tagalog Masses even if they do not understand

the language because they are moved by the intensity of the singing and the praying.

     On a Saturday afternoon in early June, I was invited to give a talk in the parish to a

group of Filipino workers on "Business Opportunities in the Philippines and Spain for

OFWs." It was an initiative of an organization of Filipinos called Kalipi and the Philippine

Consulate in Barcelona to help build the entrepreneurial capacity of Filipinos in one of the

most industrialized cities of Spain. One of the other speakers in the afternoon seminar was

newly arrived Consul General Eduardo Jose A. de Vega, a young diplomat who is fluent in

Spanish. He spoke in both Spanish and Tagalog.

     He had a very relevant message to the OFWs present. He reminded them that some

thirty to forty years ago, there were a more than a million Spaniard who were overseas

workers in the more developed countries of Europe like Germany, Spain and the United

Kingdom. I have first hand knowledge of this historical fact because I lived in Barcelona in

1963 to 1964 and do remember that Spain was a Third World country then and had to send

workers abroad to earn foreign exchange to support their families. But, as Consul Vega told

the participants of the seminar, the remittances sent by the Spanish overseas workers were

invested by their relatives in starting small businesses so that after one generation, there was

no need anymore for the younger Spaniards to go abroad. They had sufficient incomes back

home through the businesses they put up from the remittances sent by their relatives so that

the flow of overseas workers started to dwindle and eventually stopped. Today, the situation

is exactly reverse. Spain is host to 5 million overseas workers from Asia, Latin America, the

Middle East and Eastern Europe.

      Consul Vega then advised the OFWs to follow the example of the Spanish workers.

They should use their savings to put up businesses in the Philippines so that the next

generation of Filipinos need not go abroad anymore. Also to insure themselves against

unemployment with the ups and downs of the Spanish economy, they may also consider

putting up small businesses in Spain so that they will be self-employed. In fact, present in the

crowd were two Filipino entrepreneurs who have small businesses operating in Barcelona.

There was Ms. Trinidad Tapalla, owner of three restaurants called Casa Nostra, Alba and

Alimentacion. Another entrepreneur was Mr. Brad Malapitan Catly who was the owner of

the Miramar Bar Restaurant and operates a travel agency. These two were resource speakers

who showed that it is possible to put up small businesses in the City of Barcelona. Then an

officer of an NGO called ACTIVA presented a step-by-step guide to starting a business in

Barcelona, very much appreciated by the newcomer who does not know how to negotiate

what could be a complex bureaucratic process in any municipality.

      My small contribution was to identify the sectors in which there are bright prospects for

SMEs both in the Philippines and Spain. I found it very useful to use the acronym of the four

Fs that I have written about in other occasions. The four Fs stand for Food, Fashion,

Furniture and Fun (meaning entertainment and tourism). Under Food, it was easy to already

point to the two resource speakers who have demonstrated that they can run profitable

restaurant businesses in Barcelona.     Next to the key factor of the Chef, the Filipino

competitive advantage is the preference given by even non-Filipino restaurant owners to

Filipino waiters and waitresses. We have a knack for serving well the customers of a

restaurant. I know of a Spanish chain of restaurants who hire only Filipinos and Filipinas to

do the waitering for them. Also under Food are all sorts of Filipino delicacies that are now

beautifully and professionally packaged that they can be sold in the supermarkets of the

country. These food items include such famous Filipino indigenous products like chicharron,

pastillas de leche, polvoron, chicacorn, dried mangos, etc.

     Under Fashion and accessories, I told them about ladies' lingeries and children's

dresses. In fact, there is already a Filipina entrepreneur in Barcelona who has opened several

stores selling especially designed children's dresses. Spanish and other parents spare no

expenses in dressing their children well.      These dresses can be manufactured in the

Philippines and exported to Spain. Some of them could actually be manufactured in Spain

itself. The Filipino talent in design and embroidery can be the competitive advantage even of

small enterprises. I also encouraged them to look at the market for wedding gowns which do

not need economies of scale because they can be individually crafted and tailored.

     Under Furniture, I suggested that they identify the products from Cebu and San

Fernando, Pampanga, which can be sold to Spanish households. This category would include

all types of home decors which may have a larger market during the ongoing housing slump

when people cannot afford to retain their second homes or replace their older residences and

may have to be contented with just improving their existing houses by replacing their old

furniture or adding more decorative items. There are beautiful paintings by Filipino artists

(like those in the province of Rizal) that can be marketed to Spanish families. They should

also think of Christmas decors, especially the "Belens."

      Under Fun, I reminded them that Filipinos are among the best entertainers in the world.

They can organize parties and other functions that require musical entertainment. Their

relatives in the Philippines can consider operating bed-and-breakfast facilities in such

touristic provinces as Mindoro, Ilocos Norte, Negros Oriental, Bohol, Panay and other areas

in the countryside in which there is a shortage of inexpensive hotel rooms. Some large

houses constructed with the remittances of OFWs can actually be converted into these bed-

and-breakfast lodges that can be easily managed by a family, especially if one of the

members of the household worked as a cook, waiter, or chambermaid in a foreign hotel or on

board a luxury liner.

      These ideas that I gave to the OFWs in Barcelona may be useful to OFWs in any other

part of the world. As Consul Vega said, we can reduce the number of people going abroad

looking for work if the remittances of today can be used to start small businesses that can

employ the next generation of the families of OFWs. For comments, my email address is

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