Sari-Sari Ailene
Jan 2005
by Gregg

I've periodically thought I'd like to help Ailene and her family but never knew quite how. On a recent afternoon in Aklan (Philippines), after a long day of trying to get things done, I was walking from the main road back to where I stay deep in the barrio. The route takes me past Ailene's house and more often than not I stop to chat.

On this occassion I was tired and just wanted to get home. I was thinking I wouldn't stop. But there was Ailene in the small patio area in front of her simple concrete house. She greeted me warmly and invited me to sit.

Despite having known her for 12 years, sitting and talking with Ailene can be awkward. Her English is quite good but she gets nervous. I sometimes find myself at a loss for something to say.

We exchanged the usual pleasantries... what to say next? We had already covered all the updates on her three kids during previous chats. I first met her kids as pre-teens and now they're all college graduates. And they're all jobless. Jobs are hard to come by here.

I started asking her about her business. A thought was forming in the back of my mind.

I first met Ailene in 1993 at the barrio's town fiesta. A hundred or so people had gathered in the darkness of the night on and around the neighborhood basketball court. While the road wasn't paved, the court was. Ailene was selling snacks and single cigarettes. We chatted and she told me she had a small shop, operated out of her house. This is common here. They call it "buying and selling". Buying cigarettes by the pack and selling single "sticks" at a small mark up. Selling beer on commission from the wholesaler. Selling baked goods made by a neighbor down the way. The profits are tinybut it's something.

An investment in a "ref" means you can sell cold beer and soft drinks and make ice. Over the years since I've known her, Ailene has managed to do this but her business otherwise remains unchanged. In fact, during my last visit she had pretty much stopped it altogether; it just wasn't worth the trouble.

But now she's up and running again. After all, every little bit helps. The problem is that she has no capital. She can't sell soft drinks or Tanduay rum (the most popular item here) because those items have an up front cost. She can't sell San Miguel beer either - only the second rate brands because those she can get on consignment.

I pressed her for details. How much profit per case of beer sold on consignment versus bought and sold. How would she grow the business if she could. Has she ever considered a loan?

I had never talked with her about this sort of thing before. Her business savvy, her math skills, were impressive. She knew all about loans but said the interest rates were too high. I asked her how much she would borrow and what she would do with the money if she could get a loan at a low interest rate.

She said P3000. P5000. She would expand the business slowly and carefully, not spend all the money at once. She would become a full blown "sari-sari" store carrying soap, toothpaste, shampoo as well as snacks, soft drinks, San Miguel and Tanduay.

As we chatted a regular stream of customers came by. For some she had what they wanted, for others not. I thought about all those missed sales. By now the thought in the back of my mind had congealed and moved forward. I asked her if she would accept a P5000 (just under US$100) loan from me. Interest free.

She smiled widely then asked when she'd have to pay it back. Well, I said, I don't imagine I'll be back again for at least a couple years. We can talk about it then. She looked at me knowingly; her smile showing no sign of fading.

* * * * *

In the 12 years that I've been visiting this Philippine barrio, I've seen a transformation. This transformation is uneven. Those families with ties abroad have seen their lot improved while those without such ties continue to struggle.

Ailene and her family don't have any such ties. Maybe you could say they do now.

copyright ©2005 - Gregg Butensky

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Ailene and her daughter Jonalene (better known as Bugs)

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A typical night hanging out at Ailene's