AKABA, the ambitious brand that’s bringing Filipino innovation to the world

AKABA, the ambitious brand that’s bringing Filipino innovation to the world

AKABA is an ethical lifestyle brand from the Philippines that does more than sell designer bags – they keep indigenous weaving traditions alive while helping artisans break out of poverty. They’ve also been one of Cambio Market’s partners since early this year.

If there’s one word to summarize AKABA, it would be ambitious. AKABA’s three founders may be young (none of them are older than 25 years), but they already aspire to be the face of social innovation in the Philippines. They want to be the ambassadors for Filipino culture abroad and compete with the likes of Herschel. And how are they doing, you ask? In less than two years, they’ve expanded their livelihood projects to seven communities across Philippines and have begun selling their bags throughout Asia and North America. We don’t know about you, but we’re quite impressed!

We travelled to Philippines earlier this year to meet our partners face-to-face and source new products. We weren’t expecting to meet EJ Isada Mariano, one of AKABA’s founders, but there he was – he showed up unannounced to one of our meetings with another organization and insisted on giving us an AKABA bag to use during our travels. He already did his research, knew about us, and wanted Cambio Market to feature his bags once we returned to North America. That was quite an introduction and led us to learn more about their work.

AKABA's classic Alumno Knapsack
AKABA's classic Alumno Knapsack

A Business With A Conscience

AKABA is exactly the type of partner we want to work with. They refuse to sacrifice sustainability or ethics for style or sales. Instead, AKABA has melded their social impact seamlessly into their business – they harness traditional weaving techniques to create high quality bags while providing fair and dignified employment to indigenous artisans.

To understand how AKABA can be successful as both a business and a driver of social change, you have to know their founders EJ Isada Mariano, Daniel Lumain and Alex Fong. EJ is AKABA’s CEO and Creative Director. In a previous life, he managed a chain of candy stores (yep, candy) in Philippines. Daniel studied social entrepreneurship for 4 years and worked in government; now he manages AKABA’s social programs and works on-the-ground with their communities. Alex is in charge of finance and sales, and keeps the team balanced. Interestingly, EJ and Daniel have been in a long-term relationship since they met in university.

When Gelaine asked them how it was to be in a romantic and business relationship together, EJ replied, “There are many difficulties, but we always look forward and focus on what we are doing and why we are doing it. It’s easier when you know you are both working toward something greater, together.”

AKABA Founders
AKABA Founders - Alex, EJ and Daniel (from left to right) at AYSPP2015 

During university, they were both exposed to the serious social issues afflicting the poorest of the Philippines. They realized that creating a social business would be the best way for them to help people and give back to their country. Describing themselves as Filipino patriots, the three friends wanted to create an ethical business that proudly shared the craftsmanship of Filipinos with the rest of the planet. As EJ said, there is more for people to know about the Philippines than Manny Pacquiao!

Working With Indigenous Communities

AKABA aims to preserve and promote cultural weaving traditions in the Philippines. As we wrote in a previous blog post, the art of weaving is at risk of extinction because handwoven products are often undervalued in the market. This has led many of the younger generation to abandon their communities and search for other means of livelihood. AKABA’s solution is to create modern and well-designed products of higher value (like duffle bags, knapsacks and other accessories), which allows traditional weaving techniques to flourish and provides fair employment to low-income communities.

AKABA not only provides their partner communities with fair wages; they also provide non-monetary benefits. Daniel shared with us a story about their first community partner in Ilocos; the people were sceptical of doctors. They would say that “it is cheaper to buy a casket than see a doctor”. Since AKABA began working with the community, they provided the weavers and their families with health insurance and engaged in a lot of community education. Since then, the community’s attitude has changed and they finally seek medical help when needed. AKABA also provides a down payment for all weavers, which allows families to pay for their children’s school enrolment for the full year. This is something they had never been able to do before.

AKABA Kuya Rex - Bag maker
Kuya Rex has been an experienced bag maker for 20 years.

Working with communities has brought its fair share of challenges, however: gender stereotypes being one of them. AKABA mostly works with women (often mothers) from the communities, since weaving has typically been assigned to women while men traditionally worked in the field. In some cases, empowering women with dignified work and fair wages has led to conflicts in villages where men are not used to earning less than women. Daniel recalled a story of a husband telling his wife, “Woman, you go home and make me a sandwich. You are not supposed to earn more money than me”.

While AKABA doesn’t personally intervene in these conflicts, they are trying to address these situations through trainings. During new weaver orientations, they bring in female weavers who have successfully balanced work with personal obligations to share their experiences and how they have navigated this complex dynamic. AKABA has also started to increase the diversity of their workforce by employing men unable to work in the fields due to physical limitations.

The Creation Process

To create each AKABA bag, the process begins by sourcing the textiles and fabrics from indigenous communities in the country. EJ, being a designer, tries to match the colour scheme, canvas, pattern, and the leather in order to make everything fit together. AKABA’s sourcing policy is simple: if the material exists locally, they will get it locally. They could easily purchase leather from other countries for much less, but they have decided to source all their leather from small, subsistence farmers in the Philippines instead. For them, the essence of their business is to promote Filipino innovation, and encouraging the local economy is a priority.

Once the design is confirmed, AKABA works with the artisans from their partner communities to hand make the bags using traditional weaving techniques. Currently, they only make bags, but they have plans to expand into other products (like shoes, clothing, tech accessories, etc).

Nanay Liwayway at the AKABA Livelihood and Weaving Center in GK Namnama
Here is Nanay Liwayway at the AKABA Livelihood and Weaving Center in GK Namnama, Laoag, Ilocos Norte.

What’s Next For AKABA?

EJ isn’t shy in saying that he wants AKABA to be bigger and better than Herschel. For him, this isn’t about building a bigger company for the sake of it. It’s about building a new economy that can benefit the underprivileged. “We have to replace the brands we know with ones that have a stronger social impact, who pay their workers fairly and use responsibly sourced materials.” As an entrepreneur, EJ believes consumers are willing to pay for handmade and high quality products that benefit people.

For Daniel, the ambition is to keep growing the impact in their partner communities. The more consumers believe in their vision, the more communities will benefit from their social projects. As Daniel explained, the ultimate goal isn’t to be the main employer in these communities. It’s to help them form their own cooperatives, to become business savvy, and to begin weaving for multiple vendors. AKABA will only be satisfied once the communities they work with become sustainable on their own.

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine is a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a passionate advocate for diversity and ethics in business. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co., an e-commerce fashion company working with Filipino artisans to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and heritage. Gelaine is also one of the founders of Sinta & Co., the world’s first conscious Filipino wedding boutique. She was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2019. Find her on Instagram @gelainesantiago and www.gelainesantiago.co

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