Dreams, Optimism, Wisdom


Erle Frayne D. Argonza

[Writ 07 May 2008, Quezon City, MetroManila. Writer was former Livelihood Coordinator of the Ministry of Human Settlements, PAC Gonzaga, from July 1981-June 1982. In Jan. 82 he was designated Acting Deputy Provincial Manager, concurrent with the livelihood post.]

Let me go through with my continuing journey as a young development professional, and transport you this time to the town of coastal town of Ballesteros in Cagayan. This town is famous for its crustaceans, notably crabs and lobsters. Let me stress here that the crabs and lobsters were huge by size compared to the ordinary, making them worth writing.

In the last quarter of 1982 my agency then, the MHS, finally recruited, trained and deployed Municipal Staff Assistants or MSAs. It was a great relief to acquire the “new kids on the block”, as it lifted so many burdens from us provincial staff, both technical and communicative (information dissemination of the KKK). From Ballesteros came this lanky young male staff (name now escapes my memory), with long ‘babalo’ chin. He was a no mean staff, to recall.

Mr. Bubbles (that’s how I jokingly call ‘babalo’ long chin folks) brought to my attention right away the huge potentiality of expanding crustacean production in his town. Unfazed by his rather dynamic explanation, who was almost gyrating like Elvis Presley during his presentation, I arranged for some consultations with fish farmers there (crustacean producers who operated onshore) as well as municipal fishers (who operated offshore). I simply wished to verify what my staff had reported to me then.

I found out that my staff did presented information in as truthful a manner as possible, verifying every millimeter of his report to the dot. I then arranged a visitation to the coastal area to see for myself what things were in there. To my own shock (I do get this feeling in the field at times), I realized that their ‘gears’ for fish farming was appallingly primitive (hmmm this is what I got for being an acculturated Big City boy in Manila: culture shock at local life). They used guava twigs that were planted below the sea level, after which the fish farmers would pick them up, with the ‘victims’ riding on the twigs.

As usual, my team’s task was to conceptualize what innovation to introduce there. That’s why our job is called ‘development’. To recoup from my initial shock (I really had to criticize myself silently), I quickly arranged for consultations with the technical staff of the BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries & Aquatic Resources) who became our constant partners in the area (they were so elated at our arrival there), as well as the professors of the Cagayan State University (CSU) –Gonzaga branch (agriculture & fisheries campus). From the consultations and research of my staff, we pieced up information about the techno-component that would be simple to operate and utilize local resources for inputs.

Since we already had municipal fishing with bagoong making in Gonzaga, my team, with the nod of our BFAR partners, decided to focus crustacean fish farming in Ballesteros. So we had this double task of convincing the municipal fishers in the town to sideline as fish farmers if they wish to benefit from the KKK enterprise finance program there.

Our simple innovation introduced to them was the ‘fish cage’, or ‘crustacean trap’. It was made of wooden and tree branches, with grill-fashioned openings to let the smaller crabs & lobsters get in, where they’d stay and feed. As soon as they grew in size, it was difficult for them to go out if at all (experiments have shown they don’t go out as they acclimatize to the domicile). Simple indeed, but so sensible as it increased the yield of the marine farmers.

We also had to convince the fish farmers to apply as individual proponents. The parameters in the area were different from that of neighbor Gonzaga where offshore fishing was the primary engagement. It was more fruitful if each individual would work on his ‘crustacean yard’ (by the sea), though collectively they would have to secure the area together (there are always thieves everywhere, remember).

Project approval was fast for this one. I don’t recall now the exact figures per project. But my recall is sharp regarding the approval, financing, re-training of fish farmers, take-off, and the most important: taste of the final result. The lobsters and crabs using the traps were even larger than the previous pre-trap days! I’m sure you’d agree with me that these crustaceans warm up the heart and brighten your day when you see, feel and taste them.



Erle Frayne D. Argonza

Two towns away to the east of Appari, Cagayan is the town of Gonzaga. Like its neighboring towns of Sta Ana (to its east) and Ballesteros (to its west), and those other coastal towns north of Cagayan, Gonzaga is home to fishery engagements. These are largely small fishers, or municipal fishers who could only go fishing by as much as ten (10) kilometers from the shoreline.

A town in the doldrums economically, this town though had the luck of being chosen as the site for the Provincial Action Center (PAC) of the Ministry of Human Settlements (MHS) for Northern Cagayan & Batanes. The PAC building itself was newly done in 1981 when we respective personnel occupied it. No sooner had we sat down there, I being the new Livelihood Coordinator for that area, when we got swamped with inquiries about the Kilusang Kabuhayan at Kaunlaran or KKK, the new enterprise finance program of government.

It was from this town where my team encountered many small planters and fishers. One group of fishers comprised of gentlemen who each had some fishing gears to operate, comprising of a 12-18 foot canoe (made from wood) with out-trigger, fish net, volvo outboard motor, and accessories. In contrast to the capital town of Tuguegarao where the experience was an attitude of luke warmth-to-indifference of folks towards the KKK, here there was enthusiasm about the program.

After some discussions with them, my team arranged for visitations of the operation area (coast). We had to be careful in dealing with these guys, because that town was home to the insurgent New People’s Army (NPA), and any mistake would turn out risky and costly. Without them telling us, I sensed that some of the folks were in fact doing espionage work for the NPAs. Instead of getting scared of that situation, I took it as an opportunity to show to the folks that development work is sincere, that if we can deliver the goods these same folks would cooperate well with the “new kids on the block” (team of development managers & implementers). Even the NPAs would admire us and not bother us and our beneficiaries for ‘revolutionary taxation’ which they never did.

It took us almost a month of discussions, visitations, and preliminary data gathering before we could decide what to counsel the folks. First, the fishers knew how to go about with their business, but their lives aren’t improving much, so it must be made clear to them that there is a gap in their competencies including technical (their gears are backward, though indigenous to the area). Second, we had information about the fishery resources in the locality, and knowledge about how to expand their markets. Third, we got the extra information that the town folks produced bagoong, or fermented fish, though production was primitive (home-made fermentation using terra cotta jars).

Piecing up the information together, including what institutional innovation to introduce, we then counseled the fishers confidently of the following: (1) instead of individual proponents, the group will cooperativize; (2) certain technical skills, including the management of the cooperative, the finances and control systems, and the marketing strategies, will be taught to them; (3) bagoong production will be the forward integration component for processing of small fish types (notably the dilis); (4) fishing nets will adjust to the larger team of fishers, so that bigger nets can be utilized and bigger outputs yielded.

After getting the clear nod of the group, we went about with our partnering business, taking another month to produce the business plan, begin cooperative training and assist in processing document, designing the tank for the bagoong production site (we had an engineer who helped us design a concrete tank), and other tasks.  The funding then was so open, so when the group submitted their documents and I endorsed the project for approval (funding at P350,000), it didn’t take a month for final approval (by the regional office) and the release of first tranche of funds.

Construction of the bagoong site began immediately, coupled with acquisition of larger boats, nets and gears. In no time at all did the contractor finished the ‘factory’ site, which had a concrete tank of 10 feet long by 4 feet width, and 2 feet height. Fermentation formula was 1:4 (1 can of salt for every 4 cans of fresh fish). The upper portion contained a faucet located 6 inches below the top, which released the patis (fermented sauce) that floated on top.

Upon launching and initial catch plus initial fermentation, our team and the proponents were so elated at the result. The bagoong tasted really good, so was the patis qualitatively good, it didn’t take the group a hard time to market them. So with fish catch (sold pronto in the coast to middlemen traders) and bagoong + patis as sideline, the fishers finally tasted better life. This is truly bagoong for better living, and remains among the legacy of Gonzaga.

[Writ 07 May 2008, Quezon City, MetroManila]




Erle Frayne D. Argonza


[Writ 01 May 2008, Quezon City, MetroManila]


Samurais in Tuguearao! That must be a farfetched chimera, but truly in this capital town of Cagayan province (Northern Philippines) is located a village of cottage industries run and managed by marginal artisans. Their chief craft was, and remains to be that of bladed metal works.


I was pretty busy scouring for bankable projects in my own hometown (my basic education years were spent in Tuguegarao) as early as 1981 when news came to me that a certain group of Larion craftsmen desired to bolt away from their tradition and diversify into hmmm samurai swords. Already a junior executive of the Ministry of Human Settlements after barely out of college, I had the luck of having among my personnel a driver who was bona fide resident of Larion village (barrio was the term then).


The driver (Rolando Tumpalan), an Ilocano like all of his neighbors in Larion, was very vivid in his presentation to me one day of the plan of his neighbors to diversify into samurai swords and accessories. I knew since childhood that Larion produced bolos and knives, made from cast iron scraps, even as my own family abode possessed couples of the same products. But to say of samurai swords, well, my encyclopedia set was telling me that the original thing was made of a specially forged steel alloy. Besides, I knew by then that samurai craft (it was home industry in Japan) was dying if not dead already. Japanese considered themselves as Western people and had nothing to do with seemingly phoney items from their past, including kimonos and samurai blades.


Before some Larion guys might be playing tricks on me, I summoned my operations manager (Mia Calimag) and Livelihood Coordinator (Bong) to immediately set a rendezvous between the regional director of the National Cottage Industry or NACIDA (name now escapes my memory) and myself, with our technical staff around. The NACIDA was one of our partner agencies in implementing the KKK and was already in operations way ahead of us in the region (my agency was regionalized only in mid-1981).


Well, thanks to this magnanimous NACIDA official, he came right to my office, breaking protocol by visiting the office of an erstwhile official of lower rank. We than set our joint agenda and modus operandi first of all, updated each other about initial enterprise support operations of our respective agencies, and determined whether the Larion metalworkers were worth supporting. To my own surprise, this director (quite a fat guy but very intelligent) was very enthusiastic about the samurai project.


This being so, we immediately arranged for a visit to the proposed project site in Larion, had a chat with the officials of the cooperative (the coop served as beneficiary), inspected their facilities, and then delivered pep talks to the members. We were then shown models of the proxy swords produced by them, and wow! My eyes almost popped out of wonderment. The products were splendid! The intended captive market was the tourists, with domestic tourist resorts and trade exhibit sites serving as primary forward linkages.


The funding support from the KKK (Kilusang Kabuhayan at Kaunlaran) was needed to procure extra machines (metal lathe included), mini-furnace, increase the volume of raw materials (steel scraps), improve the storage area, hiring marketing & sales staff, re-train the artisans, and for around three (3) months of working capital. Funding level was past P0.5 Million, with approval done merely at our regional level (past the P1 Million it has to go to central office).


The Larion coop members were very elated over the support shown by us state officials over their venture. Such an elation would extend throughout the processing of their documents and pre-operational trainings, and on through their appearances in some KKK Recognition Days (held once a month).


The project did take off and operate successfully, and made the name of Larion blade makers shine brightly beyond their previous marginal state. It’s now over a quarter of a decade since that project commenced, and I wish the Larion samurais had graduated to global standards in any way.



Bro. Erle Frayne D. Argonza

[Writ 01 May 2008, Quezon City, MetroManila]

Hi Fellows! Kumusta kayo! (How are you doing!)


You may wonder how a man, convicted for murder and imprisoned for a long period, possessing just a single arm (he was amputated of his left arm), would survive life after prison. This is the success story of a man from Solana town, Cagayan province (northern Philippines), whose name now escapes my memory when I met him in 1982.


Solana is a new town carved out of its mother town, the capital town Tuguegarao, and lies just across the mighty Cagayan River from the capital town. 700,000 years ago mammoths roamed this area, whose remains, including those of Paleolithic man, were freshly discovered by anthropologists in the 1990s. This town could very well be the ‘cradle of mankind’ in Southeast Asia, who knows?


But among those news that enlivened the quite sleepy town in 1982 was about its scion, whom I’d call Asyong here. Freshly out of prison, possessing nary a thing but a few clothes, he “jumped the gun” right away and took on the challenge of heading towards a successful middle income life, minus his left hand. His town was notorious for producing Jesse James-type assassins, and without him telling me what he did then, I knew he was a dreaded Jesse James (besides my staff whispered the fact to me hmmm).


He was morbidly repentant of what he did in the past though, as I can see in his face and aura (I was already a spiritual seeker than and had started doing yoga meditation). I was the designated Deputy Provincial Manager of the Ministry of Human Settlements for Cagayan, and here was this man whom I thought was bankable and would fit our search for human interest stories of our livelihood program (funded through the Kilusang Kabuhayan at Kaunlaran or KKK). I was also dabbling as concurrent Regional PR Manager, edited our KKK newsletter, was on radio every Saturday of the week for livelihood talks, and here was this petite but dangerous artisan of murder who now wanted to mutate into a genuine artisan of a preferred craft.


Dangling behind his back was a handbag containing a bulging thing. And were it not that one knows his real intention for coming, the bulging thing might be suspected for a caliber 45 hand gun. It turned out to be his model of his craft that he learned inside the Muntinlupa correctional (prison), a transparent 750 gin bottle that now contained inside it a replica of a house surrounded by a mini-garden. It was beautiful! How did this one-armed jack ever do the trick? Well it was no trick but craft, serious craft.


Selling for a mere P35 apiece then, I immediately ordered for three (3) pieces, one would be mine while the two others would be for gift items. I also did the peddling within my office by urgently meeting my staff and informing them of the product, while the Livelihood Coordinator and his assistants did the selling for this humble and short man (he must have  been mid 40s then). After hearing his sad travail, I instructed my staff to prioritize this beneficiary, and expected the business plan be done in a couple of weeks or less. His project will be funded pronto upon completion of the biz plan and fast-track training.


Just by viewing the esthetics of the prototype, I was convinced that the product will sell. That was all I needed to establish: the marketability. The rest would be marketing strategy, branding, and packaging. With my good staff behind me to prepare the business plan, it did turn out in the cash flow and income statements that the project was highly feasible. Seeing the bullish biz mien of the proponent himself, it didn’t take long before my staff would complete his training so he and his assistants (he had apprentices) could handle the organizational, financial and marketing aspects fairly well.


The project, funded again through the KKK, did take off not soon after my first encounter with this reformed ex-con. In couples of KKK Recognition Days (we held one every month), I requested this beneficiary to be around so he could be duly recognized. In some occasions I also requested him to do some talks before the audience, which he shyly complied with.


So  Fellows, from mammoths and Paleolithic Man to ex-con producing wonderful craft, this town of Solana had it in the 1980s. It’s worth visiting, this town, which now has tour resorts, and hopefully that man (he must be early 70s if he were still alive today) had more than amply exhibited to his town-mates the true way of the Solana Man: a harbinger of civilization. 



Bro. Erle Frayne D. Argonza

[Writ 12 April 2008, Quezon City, MetroManila. The author was a former young executive of the Ministry of Human Settlements for Cagayan and Batanes provinces and for Cagayan Valley. ]

Financing micro-enterprise has now come a long way in the Philippines. And there is much cause for jubilation regarding this particular feat.

I myself began my professional career in enterprise finance, as a young livelihood supervisor with the defunct Ministry of Human Settlements. Our funds sources for development financing then were from three sources: (a) Human Settlements Development Corporation or HSDC; (b) Kilusang Kabuhayan at Kaunlaran or KKK (roughly, National Livelihood Movement); and, (c) BLISS Program, for those BLISS housing site-related projects. That was in the early 1980s, and we were quite awash with funds then.

With quite a huge war chest for our projects, we sat down in no time at all around the 2nd quarter of 1981 to plan the compass of operations for the newly launched program, the National Livelihood Movement. It took us around two (2) months to do planning internally, after which we took another couple of months to dialogue with other state agencies and procure their own co-operation and partnering with us regarding the project prototypes and modules.

Among those projects that we identified pronto were those simple micro-enterprises that would easily buy with the folks. Our projects though went beyond the micro-finance, as we were mandated to fund huge projects via the HSDC program. I was with the Cagayan Valley team then, and was transferred from community development to livelihood program just so that I can focus my tasks of taking off the new KKK program in my areas of jurisdiction.

I recall very well how reluctant were the folks in accessing to financing. That was a time when the Philippine economy was still 50% rural, and the psyche of the folks was strongly of the peasant-rural artisan type. They couldn’t easily identify with new ideas, even as they get suspicious over them, as the failures of previous programs (e.g. Masagana 99 for rice) have transmogrified them into shy turtles whenever enterprise financing comes. Besides, they weren’t that confident that they could run their own projects competently.

Given that rural background of the folks, our project teams prioritized food production-related concerns, as well as crafts that were more or less backward or forward linkages of food production. To name a few project modules that we developed and successfully funded via the KKK: garlic production (1-1.5 hectares); citrus orchard (5-10 hectares); goat raising (10-heads); draft carabao (1-head buffalo); onion production; bagoong production (backyard, jar-crucible). The total list of enterprises actually went beyond 100 in Cagayan and Batanes alone, where I was primarily assigned. I’m citing only the micro, individual beneficiary-operated projects here.

Because the program was new, we had to undertake a social marketing campaign by informing not only the people but also our partner agencies. The latter were particularly very helpful in our efforts at capacity-building, both for our development implementers and beneficiaries. The financial delivery system also had to be oiled well, as this involved co-partnering with state banks that acted as fund repositories and co-evaluators. It was a success as a whole, amid the gaps in the initial implementations.

That was a long time ago now. The KKK is still alive as an institution today, many other micro-finance institutions have already cropped up including NGOs, and the central bank already entered the arena for regulatory and wholesale funding purposes. The old informal micro-financing, via the 5/6 scheme now has to retool or repackage their financing, as they have been perceived as economic barnacles and have to compete with the formal institutions for beneficiary loyalty.  

The great thing with micro-finance is that not only does it save the petty commodity producer from poverty. As the case of the early 80s had shown, the KKK and related programs were instrumental in cushioning the impact of global recession and the internal shock caused by Dewey Dee scandal that sent down the economy like a sinking boat.

When a strategy such as microfinance can save the boat both on the micro and macro levels, it can indeed be a very strong strategy for national salvation. And this is where our jubilation comes in.

Mabuhay! A toast to micro-finance!