Sari-sari stores are ubiquitous in Philippine cities, and nearly all of them are owned by women. The social enterprise Hapinoy is helping them grow. Anna Valmero

Sari-sari stores are ubiquitous in Philippine cities, and nearly all of them are owned by women—who are now bringing their businesses into the future.

MANILA, Philippines — Walk down any busy street here, or in practically any city, town, or village in the Philippines, and you’re certain to spot a sari-sari store.

The tiny retail outlets sell basics such as canned goods, rice, noodles, coffee, shampoo, and toothpaste (sari-sari means “variety” in Filipino). They’re typically situated in front of a home, and almost always tended by a mother, aunt, or daughter of the family who lives there. There are an estimated 1 million of these stores across the Philippines—one for every hundred people.

A number of years ago, Mark Ruiz began thinking about these stores. He wondered: Why are they always so small and never seem to grow? Ruiz had experience with retail. He was a manager for Unilever, a company that supplies consumer goods in big supermarkets and store chains. A million women entrepreneurs were making a modest living running sari-sari stores, Ruiz thought. Why not make a good living?

Ruiz decided to do something about it. He got together with his college buddy, Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV, who is now a senator and a cousin of the incumbent Philippine president. In 2007, the two co-founded a social enterprise aimed at training women who run sari-sari stores to grow their business and improve their profits. It’s called Hapinoy, a play on words that means “happy Filipino.”

“When you empower women, you can help their families,” says Ruiz, now 37. “Hapinoy mothers send their kids to school and so on. And that multiplier effect is great.”

So far, 4,000 women entrepreneurs have signed on, a number Ruiz hopes to grow substantially within five years. The women get training on how to manage their accounting and inventory, access to micro loans, and assistance with launching profitable new product lines such as mobile money transfers.

Mark Ruiz co-founded Hapinoy as a social enterprise in hopes of transforming sari-sari stores into a sustainable income source for mothers. (Microventures/Hapinoy)

They also get lower prices on their bulk purchases and a marketing boost from being aligned with an increasingly well-known brand. According to a recent in-house survey of Hapinoy’s members, 86 percent of respondents were able to increase daily cash sales. Their average boost in sales was 24 percent.

LeiLani Rebong is one of the women reaping the benefits. Rebong credits Hapinoy with catalyzing the success of her sari-sari in Laguna, a peri-urban province two hours south of Manila. Known by her neighbors and customers as “Nanay Lani” (nanay means “mother”), Rebong declines to say how much her income has grown. But she says she can send her kids to school, owns a motorized tricycle that her husband drives as a taxi, and recently bought a small lot where she plans to build a house for her parents.

“Before, I had not even dreamed of being able to buy a car or even send my kids to a private school,” Rebong says. “Now as a Hapinoy mother, I am able to buy these things for my family. But don’t get me wrong. My happiness stems not from the material things. It is knowing that I can work for my dreams and that I can do more.”

Community hubs

As in many developing countries, convenience stores form a sort of commercial and cultural backbone in the Philippines. In the big cities and provincial towns, sari-sari stores fill a gap between ambulant street vendors selling a small number of things—such as cooked food or cleaning supplies—and big grocery stores, which sell lots of things, but often in bulk quantities that are too expensive for customers with low incomes.

Sari-sari stores sell by the tingi method, meaning that customers can buy goods in small quantities for a day’s use. For example, a family living on 100 pesos per day ($2.20 U.S.) can buy a decent meal of a kilo of rice, a pack of noodles, and some canned sardines. Customers drop by frequently, making the stores something of a community hub where mothers congregate to exchange news in the community. In smaller towns with no street signs, one of the clearest directional posts is typically a sari-sari store.

Sari-sari store owners attend a training on mobile money transfers in Tacloban, a city devastated by Typhoon Haiyan last year.  (Microventures/Hapinoy)

The ubiquity of sari-sari stores is both their strength and weakness. Most stores sell the same goods, and in cities they co-locate on the same popular blocks to attract customers. Profit margins are tiny—about 50 cents to one peso (1 to 2 U.S. cents) per item. When stores fail it is often because of an owner’s generosity in extending credit to struggling customers and allowing those unpaid debts to pile up.

This is why record-keeping is a big focus of Hapinoy’s financial literacy training. Ruiz says it’s crucial for owners to monitor the rolling debts accumulated by their customers. It also helps instill responsibility among an owner’s family members, who can get used to pilfering small amounts of cash or food from the store. The survey of Hapinoy members showed that after owners made record-keeping a habit, they were able to decrease losses from pilferage by 57 percent. And because Hapinoy discourages credit extension, owners basically eliminated those losses.

Growing the business

Having sound record-keeping in place is also critical to other services Hapinoy facilitates. The stores get access to loans from partners such as the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, the Philippines’ largest microfinance institution. Nanays use the small loans to renovate their stores or start up new services that can produce additional revenue streams. For example, some stores in areas where there is no electricity have installed solar panels where customers can charge their lamps for a minimum fee of 10 pesos (about 22 U.S. cents).

Another growth area for stores is services tied to mobile phones. Hapinoy stores now offer prepaid reloading for voice and texting services. They also facilitate mobile money transfers, allowing customers to use their cell phones to pay bills or process remittances from out-of-town family members.

Sari-sari stores typically allow customers to buy small quantities of products such as eggs. (Anna Valmero)

These transactions carry a minimum fee of 30 pesos (67 cents) for a money transfer worth 1,500 pesos ($33 U.S.); the fee increases with the amount transferred. It’s more convenient for customers than going to a bank, where the hours are short and the lines are long. (More than one-third of all municipalities in the Philippines don’t have a bank.) It’s also cheaper than going to a traditional cash-transfer center. And for the sari-sari owners, who can process as many as 20 of these transactions a day, it’s a huge new profit center.

“When identifying these growth segments, we wanted our nanays to shy away from the traditional formula of just selling noodles or shampoo, which is basically done by everyone,” Ruiz says. “We introduce them to potential new services they can also introduce in their community.”

As a social enterprise, Hapinoy has a foundation that advocates for the empowerment of women. Ruiz says the company makes a “small profit” from holding the trainings and “a small percentage” from the mobile money services offered in Hapinoy stores. Hapinoy also makes money doing market research for Philippine firms, and receives grants from donors so that it doesn’t have to charge nanays membership fees. [For more of Citiscope's interview with Mark Ruiz, click here.]

A mother’s story

Rebong admits she had no prior knowledge of managing a store when she got started in retail back in 2004. Her goal then was simply to augment her husband’s income. She had just given birth to a second child. Tending to a baby gave her the idea that she could sell diapers from a table-top. Later, she branched out to selling infant formula and other related items.

Three years later and with some savings, she opened a small sari-sari store. It was little more than a roofed, five-square meter area in front of her house. When both of her kids started attending school, she saw the need to earn more and save up for their college education. Enticed by the training and access to financial loans for mothers like her, Rebong joined Hapinoy in 2009.

LeiLani Rebong started out selling diapers ten years ago. She now owns a full sari-sari store and pioneered mobile money transfers as a growth business. (Anna Valmero)

During her first year, Hapinoy enabled Rebong to access a loan of 25,000 pesos ($550 U.S.) in cash and 20,000 pesos ($500 U.S.) worth of groceries to help grow her business. Restocking at that time proved beneficial, as most other stores in the area were destroyed by flooding and heavy rains from Typhoon Ketsana.

Among the business lessons Rebong learned was that she could make more profit by buying and selling items in bulk. Her items are at least one peso cheaper than other stores because of her access to wholesalers in the area. She passes on discounts to her suki, or regular customers, when they buy several of the same items.

The training in record-keeping proved crucial when she moved into providing mobile money services—cash transfers require keeping basic information such as customers’ names, addresses, contact numbers and signatures. In fact, Rebong was the one who suggested that Hapinoy branch into mobile money. She now facilitates trainings for other sari-sari store owners on how to run a money-transfer operation.

Rebong can hardly believe how far she has come from her humble beginnings. “I’m not your typical college-educated worker,” she says. “Yet I am proud to be able to establish myself as an entrepreneur and sari-sari store owner. Through the guidance of the Hapinoy network, I was able to help myself dream more and in the process, I am able to help my family and my neighbors.”

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