Flora was a non-employed housewife for many years, raising three sons until her policeman husband died. There was his pension, a sari-sari store the couple owned next to their house, and a small plot of land in the province inherited from her husband’s family. But she thought that without his regular salary, these were not sufficient to comfortably support the family.

Undaunted, she decided to go into business. First, she looked at the resources of the family and concluded they were enough to start a small business--but what business? She took stock of what she could do. Over the years, Flora had honed many useful skills. She had learned the disciplined use of the money her husband gave her every month. Having taken free courses from the government-run TESDA (Technical Education and Skills Development Program), she could do minor carpentry and plumbing repair jobs in the house. She also knew how to delegate chores to her sons. She would constantly admonish them, “Don’t follow the other boys in the neighbourhood who think that just because they are boys, they don’t have to do household chores”. She consequently taught them how to budget, cook, clean, and wash clothes. Everyone had their respective responsibilities.

She and her sons could cook well, so the first idea that entered her mind was to make pre-cooked meals. They prepared simple dishes, which they would then sell to the neighbours, many of whom did not have time to cook. When the operation stabilised, she had another idea: instead of their more convoluted carpooling arrangements, she could convert their mortgage-free van into a small school bus and ferry the neighbourhood kids to and back from school. 

One day, whilst with the van, she observed that the carers of small children at the school were always searching for places to buy some food. It was their way of whiling away the hours until dismissal time. But the nearest stores were some distance away. By the following week, Flora and her sons had various eatables ready: pancit, fishballs, kikiam, and palamig—a sugary sweet drink with gulaman or seaweed jelly (Philippine snacks). The “shop” was at the back of the van, and her hired driver was the salesman. It was not much more work since she was already preparing meals for the neighbours. As she anticipated, the “shop” was a hit! The business grew, and in time, she was able to sell her van and buy a real bus, attracting more parents from nearby neighbourhoods.

Flora graduated from secretarial school--during her time a two-year course after high school. Before her marriage, she worked in a small flower shop in Manila, then as a sales lady in a large department store where she and her husband met. They would have been married for 15 years by now, but it wasn’t meant to be. She remembered his dreams—to own a small building near their local market where they could open a storefront for commercial purposes and get the floor above for paying boarders.

Although her two small businesses were doing well and Flora had been frugal-- ploughing back most of the earnings to expand her operations--the money was hardly enough.  Still, she was uneasy about approaching the bank for a loan—what with its tons of documentation she didn’t understand.

Whilst still mulling over various possibilities, a friend told her about a group of women forming a cooperative and taking advantage of the microfinancing programme offered by an NGO (non-government organisation). There weren't many forms to fill out, and she felt more secure when informed that their cooperative paid their loans on time, with a repayment rate of over 95%! Flora quickly joined them.

As chance would have it, she also heard from another friend of a water-refilling station for sale for only two hundred thousand pesos, including the franchise and all the equipment. Moreover, the station was in an area with a lot of traffic from nearby residents, and the rent was only Php15,000 per month. She could probably come up with the Php200,000 purchase price—but where to get the funds for operation?

She approached her son’s high school teacher in economics as she heard he once worked for NEDA National Economic and Development Authority). Offering him a consultancy fee, he agreed to help her secure a loan from DTI's (Department of Trade and Industry) MSME (Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises) financing programme.

As soon as her loan application was approved, Flora knew she was now set for what she considered a real small business. Nevertheless, she met this with a bit of apprehension. Thank goodness she had the support of the franchising company, or she wouldn’t have known where to start. The fee of Php7,000 per month was well worth it as the mother company provided her with a strong brand and an easily recognisable logo. It shared with her a set of promotional materials including flyers and label stickers. The franchiser also trained her and her staff and gave them tips on proper management. Finally, it had a ready supply of water containers, as well as filters and chemicals for the servicing and maintenance of the machines.

The station used tap water from the public utility company NAWASA (National Water & Sewerage Authority), which ordinarily was not potable until it was processed through the filtration, distillation and purification machines in the station. Flora sold the purified water for Php30 per five gallons. She also sold refillable dispensers for Php200 each. Payment was always in cash. To prevent staff from pilfering, Flora herself or one of her elder sons acted as cashier.

Many customers were walk-ins, but she also had sukis (repeat customers) who regularly had fresh water delivered, with the empty dispensers picked up for washing and refilling. The delivery men used tricycles-for-hire:  in future, Flora planned to buy these "motortrycles" for the business. Alternatively, with an ever-positive outlook, she looked forward to possibly converting her school bus into a delivery vehicle.

Then, the COVID pandemic struck. Schools were closed, and formerly busy neighbours cooked their own meals, but the demand for delivered purified water increased exponentially. With a rapidly growing customer base to service and ready cash to spare, Flora was now prepared to convert her school bus into a delivery lorry, and to stop the franchise in order to embark on her own brand and logo—FLORA PURIFIED WATER. She even created her own flyers and other promotional materials.

When interviewed for this article, she smiled. Her sons were now at university and she felt blest indeed. Incidentally, did we know she recently saw for sale a nice laundromat with several new machines? She added, "I am just thinking that a laundromat can use the same taps we use before we purify the water, so it could be a complementary business, no? What do you think?"  

20 January 2024