learnings highlights

The Enchanted Farm – a social innovation hub 

Last November and December, I spent a month working as a volunteer in a Filipino NGO called Gawad Kalinga. I was in a very special place called the Enchanted Farm.
The Enchanted Farm is a 35 hectares Farm situated 50 km North from Manila.


But it is much more than just a farm.

It is also an incubator for Social Businesses, and a Social Entrepreneurship university.
It is a platform that connects and empowers stakeholders to accomplish the vision and mission of the NGO Gawad Kalinga (GK) : ending poverty for 5 millions of Filipino families by 2025.
It is actually not so simple to understand what is going on here !

The Enchanted Farm is a kind of social startup which is permanently evolving.

Organization, roles, projects are moving fast – as quickly as it takes to someone to have a new idea. The (small) management team is incredibly busy, they deal with thousands of issues – and develop an amazingly wide range of skills. There are very few processes, things are mainly oral and informal. The Enchanted Farm is an organic ecosystem that seems to have a life of its own.
It was created thanks to the dream of the founder of GK, Toni Meloto.
While the place was a former rebel area with nothing but fields, « Tito Toni » had the vision of the place, what would be created there. He gathered a team of young people who helped him transform the dream into reality.
As Shannon, the manager of the Social Business incubator, expresses :

« People thought that we were crazy ».

These young Filipinos, who had graduated from prestigious universities, were seeking for meaning. They were making an unusual choice.
Classic life purpose for people of their social background is either to start a life abroad, or climb the corporate ladder and make money in an international company.

They chose a different path.

They were willing to stop complaining and criticize all that is wrong in the Philippines, and start building what they hoped for. They wanted to be change makers, they wanted to be part of the solution.
They were there from the very beginning. Electricity had to be brought here, roads had to be constructed, infrastructures had to be built. They trusted the visionary talent of Tito Toni.
And 5 years later, while the Farm is such a hub for social innovation that gathers amazing people from the Philippines and abroad, it is fascinating to hear them share the story of the very beginnings.

Out of nothing, they created a place that transforms the country.

I am so impressed by what they did.
The Enchanted Farm is above all a philosophy. The vision by Tito Toni is based on his religious connection to the catholic movement Couples for Christ.
To sum things up, GK’s way of doing things relies on helping Filipino poor communities to develop a growth mindset. Their action is based on the conviction that change in the life of people starts with an individual and collective change in character and mindset.
Helping them to understand that the first person that can have an impact on their lives is themselves. That they can decide to change their situation, in spite of the collective fatalist perception they have integrated over the past generations : I am speaking about limiting councious or uncouncious perceptions that are associated to Filipino culture : crab mindset, learned helplessness, colonial mindset – see my previous article if you would like to know more about that.

GK started with bringing back dignity to people, allowing them first to live in a proper house.

I remember this sentence I heard : « If you live among trash, you will feel like trash. If you live in a house with decorations, flowers, you will feel as a dignified human being. »
Helping people to build houses was the first step. Then GK worked on the development of communities through sharing values and gathering people around ways of creating trust relationships between people, living together, helping each other, developing solidarity.

They speak of intentional communities. One motto of GK is « bayanihan ».

It is a concept that is hard to translate but here is what I understood : it means inclusive solidarity. It is actually more than that. It means that everyone is working together in the same direction, to achieve common goals. Bayanihan underlines the strength of collectiveness. It includes the notion of « walang iwanan » which means : « No one is left behind », meaning that the participation of everyone is important. Being « caring and sharing » is another motto of the NGO.
And it goes beyond community. According to GK, Philippines need Nation builders. Philippines need social entrepreneurs that create a sense of nation development, a broader commitment to develop Filipino trusted brands, based on Filipino quality products.
Toni Meloto likes to repeat that GK is contributing to transform a threat – when poor people remain poor, it creates violence – in an economic asset for the country. When he shares with international companies that provide help to GK, he says that these meaningful choices they are making are not about CSR, Corporate Social Responsibility, but about CSI – Corporate Social Investment.
GK is about treating poor communities as partners and equals who contribute to develop the Filipino economy of tomorrow. As I mentioned earlier, the Enchanted Farm is a farm, an incubator for social businesses and a university for social entrepreneurs.

I used the idea of « laboratory for social innovation » and the word « hub ».

The ambition of Tito Toni, the efficiency of the management team, the singularity of the initiative in the Philippines indeed make of this place an amazing changemaking platform. People come from many countries in the world to visit the place, or volunteer. The Enchanted Farm attracts fascinating people who stay there for a day, a week, a month, or more.
Tito Toni, who, as a former marketer, is good at wording, speaks about « connecting the genius of the poor and the genius of the rich ». If you want to discover and example of that, I published lately an article sharing the authentic and moving story of Louis, a 23 year-old French business school student, who decided to settle at the Farm. He now dedicates his life to develop the pasture chicken industry in the Philippines.

Get to know more about the Enchanted Farm activities !

The community
It is composed of 50 Filipino families. There are strong connections between the community, the management team of the farm, and the volunteers. What is really great in the Philippines is that most of the people speak English, so it makes it very easy to communicate and build relationships with Filipinos !
The farm
It occupies 35 hectares. There is an « Animal farm » with pigs, goats, ducks, … And an « Agri department » where farmers grow crops and plants.
The Social Business incubator 
It is a platform and system that is aimed at helping Social Entrepreneurs who share GK mindset and values to get started and scale. These entrepreneurs come mainly from the Philippines but also from abroad (US, France…).
The manager of the incubator is Shannon. He and his team support around 40 entrepreneurs. The incubator helps them :
  • providing capacity building (business plan, finance, HR management…),
  • giving them opportunities to develop their network,
  • creating conditions for best practices sharing,
  • allowing access to mentors and experts,
  • supporting them to find funding…
The notion of community and « bayanihan » is very present and entrepreneurs are expected to contribute to the Enchanted Farm community as well as they benefit from it. It is aimed to be a win-win involvement.
Some examples : Social Entrepreneurs incubated at the Enchanted Farm develop businesses around peanut butter, natural lemonade, chicken industry, salty eggs, duck burgers, silk, chocolate, milk industry, ice cream, mushrooms, honey & bee products, essential oils, …
The Social Entrepreneurs usually work with Filipino farmers and with students from the Enchanted Farm Social Entrepreneurship university.
Social entrepreneurship invites stakeholders (investors, customers) to reconsider what is a cost and what is an investment : time for training employees, taking the risk to trust people, level of wages, quality of raw materials, time required for production…
Once a month, the incubator team organizes a Start Up Business camp : during 2 week-ends, people are given the fantastic opportunity to be immersed into the Enchanted Farm universe and discover the Social Business incubator.
I participated to a camp at the beginning of my stay and loved it. It is a very special experience in which we meet the management team of the Enchanted Farm, the Social Entrepreneurs, spend time working in the fields, participate to workshops about social entrepreneurship and network. Among others, I had the chance to meet a passionate French young woman, Stéphanie, who works as a freelance in Paris and tries to connect health and sports issues.
I spent wonderful moments listening to Frank, the manager of the Farm, Shannon, and Jony, who is in charge of the community and HR. It was extremely moving to hear them speak about the way they discovered GK, their story, and their involvement in the Farm. I am extremely amazed at and respectful for the level commitment, energy and enthusiasm they put into their work.
These Start Up Business camp are usually the way new Social Entrepreneurs integrate the Enchanted Farm incubator.
Shannon is also focusing on a new challenge. The Enchanted Farm has proven to be an efficient and performant model, therefore time has come for broadening ambition.
Social entrepreneurship is a wonderful lever to accelerate change. Therefore, the new ambition is to replicate the Social Entrepreneurship incubator model in other locations in the Philippines and contribute to the creation of 500.000 social businesses by 2025.
The university : SEED
SEED stands for « School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development ».
The school was created in 2014. As many other projects in the Farm, things were built amazingly quickly. The idea appeared, and within a few months, stakeholders had gathered, the Filipino government approved the creation of the school, 2 international companies had sponsored the project (Air France and Crédit Suisse), teachers were recruited, students selected. Again, what an example of transformation of a dream into reality ! – if you want to learn about that, go to the Farm and talk to people. The Farm is a place where what seems impossible becomes possible.
There are currently 80 students at SEED, and there are the first year and the second year.
The content of the program was established with a taylor-made approach by managers of GK. It is very innovative and supports GK mission. Students are students from poor communities who are selected for their intellectual qualities of course but also for their alignment with GK values, for their entrepreneurial mindset, and their will to contribute to make a social change through their work in their community and country.
The majors are agriculture, tourism, culinary, and agroprocessing.
During their second year, they work with a Social Entrepreneur as interns.
At SEED, there is a strong focus on character development, on values and mindset. They speak about the « 6C » :
  • character and collaboration,
  • compassion with competence,
  • courage to commit
Like the farm, the university is a place for experimentation. For example, during last semester, the students had meditation classes to help them develop the ability to focus and manage their emotions.
I had the opportunity to participate to a class about character development. Vicky, who was the manager of the university at the time, and Ruben, who is the founder and CEO of Intentional Work Communities Inc, had co-created the content of the class and animated it.
I was struck by the very high-level of quality of the class ! The content comes from the best current authors as far as positive psychology, leadership development are concerned. Awesome.
That day, in the Bamboo Palace class, I thought that the SEED students were so lucky. Without being aware of it, they have the privilege to benefit from the same quality of knowledge as professionals in the Silicon Valley ! Well, there is one difference : Vicky and Ruben very wisely adapted the content to make it pragmatic and understandable for 17 year-old students from very simple social backgrounds. What an amazing job they did.

Lessons I learnt

At the Enchanted Farm, I was impressed by the intensity of the commitment of the management team. One day I shared with Shannon and had a very deep and inspiring conversation with him.
Here are selected pieces of what he shared with me. I use his words.
« You’re not here just to get into the farm, build a project, and then leave. We have a mission that is broader than ourselves. You have to allow yourself to be moved completely by something greater than you. »
« What I do here is an expression of my spirituality. »
« This is not about me. I go where I am most needed. »
« The farm is also a place where each person that contributes heals himself / herself. Because coming here and contributing, you give, but you receive much more. And people are able to create transformation around them only once they have transformed themselves. »
« Ask yourself : « What is the most exciting thing you can do ? » and do it. Ask yourself what prevents you from realizing your wildest dreams and achieving your full potential. »
I also remember something that Frank said to him during one of our conversations. He told me : « The farm is an everyday MBA ».

I choose to conclude this article speaking about learning.

Learning is one of the main motivation drivers in my life. Whenever I learn, I feel so alive.
At the Enchanted Farm, everything is an experiment. It is a laboratory, a place for trial and error.
The people who work at the Enchanted Farm are absolutely amazing AND deeply humble. They are  people transforming the world AND they are making mistakes each day. They accept it. Their job leads them to start everyday doing new things they have no clue about. They have a pure and positive intention, and then they simply do their best.
They foster a culture in which not knowing and failing is OK. They are wonderful examples for the community and volunteers.
It is a place that invites each of us to reconsider the idea of failure. What is failure was one step of the learning process ?
Let us accept to fail, let us kindly share about our failures, let us value failure, daring to show vulnerability – it connects us much more as human being. Let us see failure as a necessary step of a learning process !
Related reading : The genius of the poor – A journey with Gawad Kalinga, by Thomas Graham