In many ways, the 27th Negros Trade Fair at the Rockwell Tent in Makati City is not your typical trade fair. Yes it is, as you would guess, a showcase of everything Negrense. Yes, it invites you to imbibe the scents, sights, tastes, and perhaps take a piece of the province with you in the myriad of products within.
But compelling and moving as the featured products are, none can upstage the story of this collective of entrepreneurs who rose from the sugarcane husks, as it were, of Negros.
Once upon a time, Negros was a land of pomp and plenty—more than adequately sustained by its sugar mono-crop. Government appointed a single agency to buy all the sugar. It was fine and dandy—and then world market prices fell.
“Being so dependent on sugar, there was a lot of socioeconomic upheaval in the province. Those who could afford it left the province for greener pastures elsewhere. Those who were left behind were left in despondency,” shares Millie Kilayco of the Association of Negros Producers (ANP), organizers of the fair.
“Many people in the farms didn’t know any other skills. They only knew how to plant sugarcane, cut sugarcane, and harvest sugarcane. About 80 percent of our people were dependent on sugar,” she continues.
So complacent was the populace that it saw no need to acquire and develop other skills.
Kilayco shares the tale that 14 women went to Manila to learn skills that they could later transfer to wives of the erstwhile sugar farmers. They learned to make bags, baskets, and such.
“It was not just learning new skills,” she insists. “It was a cultural transformation. A very slow start, but it was done out of need.”
After making new products, the Negrense entrepreneurs needed a selling venue. Bea Zobel of the Ayala clan let the group use a Makati car park for their first-ever trade fair. Negrenses came to buy largely to help their beleaguered province.
“Not everything back then was of the quality you see here,” says Kilayco, gesturing to the stalls. “But over the years, the products improved, so that people didn’t come out of charity anymore. They expected quality.”
And quality the ANP continues to give. “Until now, the ANP holds seminars on product design, packaging, costing, and pricing,” she declares.
Aside from setting a high bar for quality and innovation, the Negros Trade Fair, insists Kilayco, has continued to be more than a market. “It’s become a place for reunions among Negrenses,” she says with a smile. “It’s a place where they can converge, meet old friends, and eat Negrense food to boot.”
Themed “Beyond Limits,” Kilayco maintains there is “something for everyone – fashion accessories, furniture, food, and fun. That’s what we are as a people. We’re fun-loving food trippers. We don’t have traditional tourist spots, but when people go to Negrense homes, they really welcome.”
Another key characteristic of the Negros Trade Fair, enthuses the chairperson of the organizing committee, is that owners themselves mostly man the over 70 booths. The longest-running provincial trade fair in Metro Manila will feature “innovative products from five sectors of the ANP: fashion, furniture, gifts and housewares, food, and organic and natural products.
There are bags made of pandan leaves, seashell jewelry, fashion accessories, children’s apparel, furniture, unique home décor pieces, housewares, gift items, organic and natural food and personal care products, packaged Ilonggo delicacies and other food. To accommodate the eager influx of diners, the dining area has been expanded.
Among the booths is one that features handicrafts made from recycled and “upcycled” materials – items from “beadwork of old evening gowns, broken tiles from construction sites and hardware stores, soft metal pods from coffee shops, beads from discarded bangles.”
The unique hand-made products are from the skilled members of the Negrense Volunteers for Change Foundation (NVC), of which Millie Kilayco is a part.
She says the foundation champions the cause of children’s nutrition – particularly those from six months to two and a half years.
“When a child reaches six months of age, mother’s milk is no longer sufficient to provide the child’s needs,” she explains. Sadly, because of poverty, many of our countrymen do not have the means to adequately supply and meet the unique needs of this age group. Thus, these are a kid’s most vulnerable years. From hereon, Kilayco warns, “improved nutrition can no longer compensate for what the kid missed before.”
Even as there are many earnest feeding programs for children organized by well-meaning NGOs and entities, these usually target kids above that age. “Why? Because that’s when the child is in daycare,” she explains. “It’s very easy to feed the child when he’s in daycare and school.”
Thus, NVC has jointly developed a feeding supplement with the Department of Science and Technology’s Food and Nutrition Research Institute to bridge the nutritional gap of that age group. It’s difficult work that needs committed volunteers to make sure the mothers administer the supplements to their children. You can’t argue with the results, though. For a six-month period, the kids who took the rice, moringa, and mongo supplement outweighed the control group by more than a kilo, and showed increased alertness.
This represents another step the Negros Trade Fair is making, posits Winnie Kilayco: enabling Negrenses to take care of the disadvantaged of their mother province and beyond. Come to think of it, helping has been in the trade fair’s DNA from year one.
• The 27th Negros Trade fair is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. from September 26 to 28, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on September 29 and 30. Entrance fee is P40. For more information (03 4)434-1000 or 0922-871-6131. E-mail at email@example.com, or follow the Association of Negros Producers on Facebook.