An Enchanted Encounter
Dusk is gathering around the Eiffel Tower. In front of me is a bespectacled man with thick, platinum hair. He is Tony Meloto (Tito Tony to many), the founder of the largest NGO in the Philippines, Gawad Kalinga (GK). He is the most impressively charismatic person I have ever met. Inviting me, my daughter, and the two colleagues I’ve dragged along with me to join him for dinner in his favourite Parisian restaurant, it is the start of a night I shall never forget. A night that changed my life for good.
Having lifted one million Filipino families out of poverty in the last decade, GK is looking to increase this to five million by 2024. This might be considered overly ambitious. But the model developed by this visionary individual is gaining momentum, and is now attracting the attention of top financiers, multinationals, and governments from all over the world. It is quickly establishing itself as the most effective way to alleviate poverty yet devised.
Two months after our Parisian rendezvous I witness for myself the power of Tito Tony’s vision. The GK Enchanted Farm (GKEF), the first ever farm village university in the world, is about two hours away from Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Poor families have been relocated, housed, and taught farming skills. They are helping create social enterprises from organic farm produce. There is a school where local children learn English, French, and social entrepreneurship, and to hear these kids from the city slums use their newfound linguistic skills with confidence and panache is truly heartening.
Tito Tony speaks of the ‘genius of the poor’. He believes that if the people at the very bottom of the social pyramid are offered the opportunity to lead more dignified lives, they can create livelihoods that enable them to lift themselves out of poverty. He contends that the best entrepreneurs come from communities and families that have the very least, and the proof is there for all to see at GKEF.
Having grown up in a small agricultural community, I witnessed first hand how farming is simply no longer viable for many Filipinos. Most leave to find work in the capital or even further abroad. To the average farming family this alternative (and in many cases additional) source of income is a ticket to a better life; a means of providing a decent house, enough food, and education for their children. In 2014, it is estimated that there were 2.32m overseas Filipino workers (just over 2% of the country’s population) collectively sending home £2.6bn (almost £1,300 each) that year.
Standing in the Trocadero, eating hotdogs and drinking Coca Cola, I tell Tito Tony my own story. I tell him that my mother was no exception to this trend; that by working as a waitress in the UK she was able to send me to a pretty good private school in the Philippines; that her sacrifice set me on a path to the world of finance and the City of London. I tell him that my goal is to honour her by empowering my fellow Filipinos to earn a decent living where they grew up, and give them the opportunity to stay with their families. He looks at me with kind, penetrating eyes, and says:
“Jen, the best thing you can do is to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. With your rural background and experience in the world finance capital as a banker and investor, find a way to channel capital that is affordable, patient, and scalable to places and people that need it the most. The best way to help the poor is to invest in them. They do not want charity, they need investment . They need mentorship.”
Two years later, I find myself onstage at the 3rd Social Business Summit at the GK Enchanted Farm. Alongside global investors, bankers, CEOs, and top politicians, I talk about scaling up impact investments in the Philippines. I draw on everything I’ve learnt about utilising capital to facilitate social change. I share my vision of how we might go further, try harder, do better. It is an incredible, pivotal moment for me.
On the flight back to London, I’m certain I’ve found a way to help not just my countrymen, but people struggling with poverty everywhere. I’m convinced that in Inspired Ventures we have the knowledge, expertise, and means to effect change. We can take the model established by Tito Tony and GK and replicate it in communities around the globe. We can help lift people out of poverty and make the world a better place.
Anything is possible. It just needs a moment of inspiration, one human being to another.
By Jennifer Viloria
Jennifer Viloria is CEO of Inspired Ventures Ltd, as well the owner and founder of Isla Investments Ltd. She is also a member of the board of trustees for UK-registered charity In-visible. Follow her global journey by visiting www.inspiredescapes.com.