Speech of Maria Leonor Gerona Robredo Vice President of the Philippines 46TH Philippine Business Conference and Expo 2020
Good morning everyone. I’m sorry for that. I am at home and the internet connection is really bad. I hope we are all keeping safe and well. Congratulations to the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry for organizing this event despite the challenging circumstances. To Mrs. Maria Alegria Sibal Limjoco, PCCI Chairperson, Ambassador Benedicto Yujuico, PCCI President, Engr. Enunina Mangio, Chair of this year’s conference, my fellow speakers, everyone who is here this morning: Thank you for taking time from your busy schedules to be here. It is an honor to be in the midst of the best business minds of our country today.
I remember being with you last year, and speaking about harnessing the power of technology. It lies at the heart of how we as people are able to grow and achieve progress. It has helped us change and shape reality as we know it: It might sound funny to some of us now, but not so long ago, if you wanted to call someone, you had to go home to use your landline or find a phonebooth and pull three 25 centavo coins out of your pocket to use the red payphone. And yes, back then, a phone really was just a phone.
This reality has become a memory, all within a generation, thanks to the human capacity to extricate the best out of technology. Innovation stirs growth, and creates opportunities where none previously existed. In the face of challenges and threats, it transforms into a tool for survival.
This reality has become starkest over the past half-year, as the entire country grappled with the effects of COVID-19. The disease has claimed more than 5,000 lives here at home, and more than a million worldwide. The Philippines now ranks 20th in the number of COVID-19 cases globally. Our lives have been forced out of rhythm: Supply chains have been disrupted. The school calendar has been altered. And the regular division between home life and work life has almost vanished.
How do we navigate our way out of this enormous challenge? This question forms the spirit of this gathering. And from where I sit, one truth is becoming more evident by the day: If we are to emerge stronger from this pandemic, innovation and collaboration in the service of the most affected presents the best way forward.
The Office of the Vice President has tried to live up to these twin imperatives as it moved to respond to the crisis. Our relief operations began on March 13, three days before Luzon was placed under ECQ. The lack of Personal Protective Equipment was number one on the list of frontliner needs. We appropriated over 5 million pesos for PPE sets, but it quickly dawned on us that the need was much greater. So with the help of Kaya Natin, we launched an online fund drive. In the end, we collected more than 61 million pesos. With this, we tapped fashion designers for their knowledge, and sourced from local garment companies and dressmakers in urban poor communities to produce alternative and affordable PPEs, benefitting thousands of frontliners all over the country. Such an overwhelming response could only have happened through the use of online platforms; word spread quickly, and digital technologies allowed people to pitch in through just a few taps on their devices.
When community lockdowns were enforced, transportation ground to a halt, and many medical frontliners reached out to us online because they didn’t know how to get to work. We set to the task immediately, and our partners responded once more. This gave birth to a free shuttle service—with routes and schedules that we were able to refine through constant feedback loops. Eventually, we also opened dorms and other temporary living spaces in the Metro, where frontliners can stay for free.
In the months that followed, more gaps were filled: facing challenges in blended learning, helping locally stranded individuals get back home, providing relief assistance to communities who have not received government aid, among others. None of these things was easy, but scaling up and accelerating our actions were less of a challenge because of an innovative, collaborative mindset—we tapped experts and partners, all of whom had the knowledge, skills, and technologies to address our problems.
Most recently, we launched two initiatives under our Bayanihanapbuhay program. The first is an online jobs matching platform called sikap.ph. It specifically hopes to service blue-collar workers that recently became unemployed, and also tries to localize matching, taking into account the challenges of public transport and the risk of spreading COVID across communities. The second initiative is our Bayanihan Mart through iskaparate.com, our eCommerce platform for micro-entrepreneurs who would otherwise be hard-pressed to participate in the digital economy.
This spirit of leveraging the know-how of our networks to address the needs of communities has driven our efforts even before the pandemic, and in this, the PCCI has been one of our most trusted partners. Through Angat Buhay, you worked with us in promoting the work of Filipina startup entrepreneurs. The same impetus—of working together to find new solutions—becomes even more necessary with the current crisis as our background.
Last July, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) released an Enterprise Survey describing the impact of COVID-19 on our businesses. It showed that, while some may have had the capacity to withstand the shock of this pandemic, the most vulnerable businesses have been brought to their knees. Seventy-one percent (71.2%) of the total number of microenterprises underwent temporary closure. They also faced the most serious shortage of working capital – 36.3% of those surveyed said they expected to run out of cash and funds within 1-3 months. As many of us might know, ninety-nine percent of all the businesses operating in the country fall under the MSME category, accounting for more than half of the nation’s jobs.
When MSME’s fold, the jobs go with them. And when wages stop, families go to sleep fearful of where they will get the next meal. Anxiety builds up, both because of the threat of infection and the difficulty in meeting basic needs. The lack of confidence makes people hold on tighter to what little money they have, causing the flow of the economy to stagnate. Over time, even the stronger, larger businesses might buckle.
I say this to drive home the point: We operate under a single economic ecosystem, and when the most vulnerable among us suffer, everyone suffers. We cannot shrink back into bubbles of self-preservation and hope to weather the storm alone. The task: To reach out, knowing that the only way through any crisis is together.
There are many concrete steps to take, while trying to keep our business afloat. For one, let us do the best we can to keep our staff employed. We can also take a look at our supply chains and see whether some of our needs can be sourced from smaller, local producers. In the food industry, for example, there should be no shortage of local farms to tap; even better, we can empower them with knowledge to grow better quality produce, which in the long run helps us give better value as well to our clientele. At a time of great need such as now, helping each other should take precedence over growth and profits. And I think that is exactly what most of you have been doing the past few months.
Let us also work to ensure that we minimize the health risk for our workers. Social distancing and minimum safety practices must become entrenched in the culture of our offices and shops. Some of you may already be implementing work from home arrangements in your companies. But it might be more strategic and even more beneficial if we look at the long term already, reorienting all our systems and technologies to conform with the demands of the new normal, bearing in mind that we might never go back to exactly where we used to be.
These are steps that we can do now to bring us closer to the better normal that we aspire. As always, the Office of the Vice President invites you all to find ways to work together—to link up, put our heads together, find spaces where we can have meaningful impact, and offer our strength to others.
The ground has shifted beneath our feet. We are called to embrace this change—to not treat it as a bump in the road, but to seize it, to reshape the present into a better future for all. It is my hope that you will continue to be fueled by the same spirit of grit and determination that have seen your own enterprises through past challenges after all these years.
May you use this spirit to invigorate your communities, to support other industries in your midst, and ultimately respond to the call of nation building.
Maraming salamat, mabuhay kayong lahat!
 Department of Trade and Industry, 2018 MSME Statistics. Url: https://www.dti.gov.ph/resources/msme-statistics/?doing_wp_cron=1601435679.3419430255889892578125