The Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill, with many people having to recalibrate their lives as the halt in the economy deprived them of their livelihoods. Some people managed to turn this unexpected setback to success for themselves and their communities, and Mangan by Iman is one of them.
Mangan by Iman is a Tawi-Tawi-based social enterprise that produces seaweed chips. It was founded by CEO Dayang Iman Sahali, 25 and her sister Alyssa Sahali Tan, 23, who serves as COO, in July 2020 after the Manila-based sisters returned to their hometown of Panglima Sugala to weather the pandemic.
“We are the creators of the first ever seaweed chips that’s locally produced in the Philippines,” Dayang says. “Seaweed is such an integral part of Tawi-Tawians. Tawi-Tawi is the number one producer of seaweed in the Philippines and one of the top producers of seaweed in the world, a really high level… of carrageenan… and almost 80% of the livelihood in Tawi-Tawi involves seaweed, either farming, selling, market… and every year, we celebrate an agal-agal festival or seaweed festival…. We thought that it would be the best product to start to introduce Tawi-Tawi to the rest of the world... We’re not just this far-flung area in Mindanao. We have something to offer. We have really good food.”
A social enterprise
Their aunt had been producing seaweed chips since 2016, but it was only sold in the locality. It wasn’t until 2020 that the sisters decided to make it available on a global level in an effort to not only elevate the lives of everyone along the value chain, but also use the profits to help a local school and its students. “On the onset of the pandemic, my sister and I asked ourselves, how can we help our fellow Tawi-Tawians in a long-term, sustainable manner?” Alyssa says. “When we thought about it, we have a finished product, we just have to revive it and adhere to a business structure that is ethical and circular in a manner that could be sustainable for everyone.”
The sisters, who are Tausug, revamped the business from the ground up, including the way it is branded and the way the business interacts with its suppliers. “We get our seaweed from our local seaweed farmers,” Dayang says. “This is to battle the problem of the middleman, because when it comes to seaweed farming, it’s the middleman who makes money. They get their seaweed from the farmers at a very low price and they sell this seaweed to big companies in Cebu or other places. We wanted to five our farmers fair pay and aside from that, we pay them ethically and we pay them more than what they ask for. The chips are made by former housewives, so not only for women empowerment but also for their economic empowerment. We were able to provide them with jobs.”
Most of the profit goes to the rebuilding of the Tongbangkaw Elementary School, where a lot of the kids of the seaweed farmers study. “Mangan by Iman is an indigenous-led social enterprise which identifies three main stakeholders: the farmers who we source our ingredients from, our mothers and unemployed housewives who make those chips, and the students,” Alyssa says in Taglish. “We help them by rebuilding their schools and giving them school supplies and so they can fully integrate into the digital age and equip them with 21st century skills.”
Government intervention and community effort
The sisters emphasize the role that government intervention and cross-sector collaboration played in the success of their venture. “We the idea because BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) had a seminar in Tawi-Tawi on value-adding,” Alyssa says. “When we have a working government, it’s a testament on how we can uplift the lives of Filipinos, because it can hone our creativity and our innovation.”
Finding seaweed farmers in Panlima Sugala to partner with was easy because, as Dayang says, “it’s a way of life… a family enterprise. The fathers farm, the kids help harvest, the wives will dry and tie them up. It was really easy to find a community to help.”
The sisters also made it a point to specifically include women and the community in their business plan. Aside from working with the wives of seaweed farmers, they also partnered with Ilaw ng Tahanan, a non-governmental organization that offers livelihood to widows and single mothers for part of the production process. “We are women and we also really wanted to help empower them because we know it’s an Islamic province and although we are far more progressive compared to other provinces in BARMM (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao), of course there are certain connotations to women working and when it comes to women earning money, so we also wanted to help that,” Dayang says. “We really wanted to create a cycle where it’s not just enough that we have this community but that the money we earn returns to them as well.”
They also partnered with non-government organization Kids Who Farm to assist Zamboanga-based Mampang Seaweeds Planters Association (MAFISGA) in achieving the same success. “If we can do it, so can they,” Dayang says. “They have more capacity because Zamboanga has so much more support. They have solar dryers, they can do so much more with their millions and millions of pesos of equipment provided by various organizations, so it’s like we gave them an idea. You don’t have to stop at food. You can make seaweed soap, seaweed shampoo, and so on.”
Advantages of being young entrepreneurs
The sisters were able to spread the word about Manga by Iman through social media. They were able to attract the attention of consumers and the media by consistently posting about their products and endeavors on their Facebook Page. The chips are sold under the brand Juana’s Delights Seaweed Chips, after their paternal grandmother, and can be bought through Mangan by Iman Social Enterprise’s Facebook account.
Mangan by Iman’s success is proof that if set up and run properly, and with the cooperation of both community and government, it is possible to profit from an agricultural enterprise, even if one comes from a small, far-flung town. The sisters hope to encourage other young people to go into agriculture, as they have the skills such as social media savvy that are necessary to achieve success. “I hope more young people get into agriculture. We’re currently facing a problem because all our farmers are getting old and the majority of them are male,” Dayang says. “We hope that younger people see the value in agriculture and our farmers and our fisherfolk because it is the backbone of our country and if not for us, if not for the young people, who else will do it?”
Alyssa adds, “We always say to our fellow youth, you go back to your hometown, go back to your community because you’ll be able to find something to do.Like what Dayang and I did, we actually what’s happening down to the grassroots, so we were able to assess the problem and make long-term solutions for it.”
It’s only been two years, but Manam by Iman’s partner community has already been reaping the fruits of their labor. Aside from the school reconstruction and the donation of tablets to students, Alyssa says that they were able to “close projects for the Municipality of Panglima Sugala such as the building of the public markets for farmers.” Aside from this, the women seaweed chips producers have been able to send their children to school, “So the seaweed chips became a beacon of hope and a manifestation of the success stories on the grassroots.”
Dayang adds, “We never really started it for the money. It was never for profit. It was really about helping our community in Tawi-Tawi. It was bringing Tawi-Tawi’s name to the rest of the world, and I think that’s one of the main reasons why it took off so fast and it got so successful in such a short amount of time.”
The sisters are proud that their small enterprise has not only helped the local community, but also helped show Tawi-Tawi in a positive light. “Mangan by Iman is… a very new and a very young and a very small brand, but it doesn’t mean that the impact we leave isn’t big or isn’t as impactful. So really, it’s not about how big your business is, it’s about how much you’re willing to help, because once people see that you’re genuine passionate about this,. everything else just follows because they see your conviction and credibility,” Dayang says.
Alyssa adds, “ I hope that more people will learn more about what we’re doing in Tawi-Tawi and how it affects the lives of the people and communities there, and that agriculture has always been past, present, and the future of the Philippines. It has always been one of our strengths and we only have to cultivate it.”
Photos courtesy of Mangan by Iman