For her twelfth birthday, Cherrie Atilano asked her parents for a bike, because she had a plan.
She knew families in the farming community where she lived spent most of their hard-earned cash on food, leaving little for sending their children to school or to see a doctor.
The farmers didn't own the land they worked and tended crops destined for others' tables. Her idea? Convert land around the home to vegetable gardens to free up family income for other things.
So, on her new bike, young Atilano visited “sari-sari” convenience stores to sell her idea to farmers who congregated outside them.
Some 17 years on, the passion to change farming communities for good still burns “like a fire” in Atilano’s belly.
She’s the founder of agricultural social enterprise AGREA, working to make farming “cool, smart, sexy and humane”.
Basically, the 29-year-old entrepreneur has adopted an island of 260,000 people, and is helping equip it to stand on its own two feet, from the grassroots up.
AGREA supports farming cooperatives to develop niche products – turmeric, organic rice, coconut oil and sugar, and cacao to create single origin chocolate for starters – and set up eco-tourism businesses. They’re also growing gardens at the 183 public schools on the island, putting young people through agribusiness-focused university courses, and upskilling farmers.
“In the Philippines, when you are a farmer, you are the poorest of the poor,” Atilianio says. She works hard to change that narrative.
At the same time, she’s challenging narratives around women in business. Being young and female is the exception to the rule in her industry, and it’s been tough at times, she says.
It’s worth the effort. The UN says limiting the economic role of women robs the Asia-Pacific region of $US89 billion every year. It’s a no-brainer: broadening job opportunities for women in the region is good business.
It’s not easy though. Cultural norms around femininity and the role of women and laws across the region can be a considerable obstacle.
“I say, there’s time for heels, there’s time to be glamorous, but this is what I do.”
Atilano says women are more likely to look beyond the economics of farming to the wider good it can have on a community.
“You are not only thinking about how much money they can earn from their crops, but you are also thinking of how their children will be in school or how their wives will be involved in the process.”
In Myanmar, a female leader at another successful farm-focused social enterprise agrees the nurturing nature of women is a business advantage.
Phyu Hninn and her team help provide farmers with sustainable access to technical know-how to improve their farm productivity.
She says being a good leader is less about individual success and more about creating an environment where others can succeed, and women have maternal instincts that enable them to give support and take care of those around them to achieve this.
“Being a woman, it is so much easier for me to sense when a staff member is stressed or when the team dynamics is a bit down.”
A problem, she says, is female role models are thin on the ground.
“Agriculture is a male-dominated industry, from farmers to agronomists to policy makers…There have been times when I have been looked upon with doubt, questions and surprise – from farmers, from industry stakeholders and even from my own staff.”
She actively works to be a game-changer.
“My business unit used to be all male, until I started taking the leadership role last year. Now the operation team is 20 percent women.”
Hanna Keraf, the founder and head of Indonesian social enterprise Du’Anyam, which supports pregnant women to make money weaving rather than doing backbreaking farm work in the archipelago’s east, also understands the responsibility that comes with being an emergent female leader.
Despite coming from a “very underprivileged fisherman family”, her father rose through the ranks to become one of Indonesia’s leading politicians, which opened doors for Keraf. “I guess I was born with better opportunities than my peers from the same region.”
The 27-year-old says her role challenges local male partners to “switch the paradigm that women are much inferior”. She also has women and young girls saying her leadership story inspires them to higher education.
“More young female business leaders, starting from one family, one village, one province or nation, can bring huge difference, when she stands as a role model of change for other females in the community.”
Young women in Southeast Asia just need to “go for it”, she says.
And when they do, everyone benefits. Research shows economically empowering women creates better educated, healthier families, more resilient communities, and fights poverty.
According to Pham Nhan, the founder of a Vietnamese start-up protecting and developing local medicinal plants, breaking down gender barriers starts at home.
“One of the biggest challenges I had to overcome since the first day is breaking down stereotypes about girls doing business in my family.”
Nhan says there’s the traditional struggle to balance work and family chores, as well as pressure from parents to opt for more stable careers, in government organisations, for example.
Although it can be more difficult for women in the region to access start-up funds, it shouldn’t be a deterrent, when an idea is good enough, she says.
“I was easily getting investment from angel investors to start-up, and we are in the process of working with a Venture Capital to expand. There are some disadvantages when I was female; however, they are not the decisive factor.”
As a young girl Nhan loved biology. She dreamed she would become a “great biologist like Charles Darwin”.
Her tip to young female dreamers in South East Asia: “Start a business on something you really like to do, and forget all the gender barriers.”
By Kim Bowden