Ideas, Opportunity and Self Destruction

The Entrepreneur in All of Us

Naturally enough, we expats, all think we have great ideas in spotting business opportunities even if it’s not our culture. The mistake many make is to think of business ventures in the Philippines as being similar and having the same possibilities as back in our own culture. The first thing you need to realise is that it has very little in common with our culture here. I think I have been here long enough to know that this country has endless possibilities, yet at the same time, why there are a lot of reasons as to why a good idea can be prevented from working here.

I don’t have the resources but that never stops me from dreaming up crazy ideas which on closer inspection don’t always stand up to being all that viable. I dreamed up many crazy ideas and one by one ruled them out for not being feasible due to varying reasons.

Mini Bus Project

I spoke in my earlier article Moving On Up about the nightmare of transport in and out of Catigan. There is an unofficial transport system using motorbikes. The only other method is an illegal sidecar which is outlawed by local government. The motorbike riders never or at least rarely wear a helmet, let alone their paying customers. This is normal practice throughout much of the Philippines and I guess the authorities turn a blind eye.

It has many downsides other than the obvious danger of helmetless motorbikes with numerous passengers riding on the back with you. If you want to get back to Catigan after 6.00 PM, chances are you are going to have to pay a legal authorised sidecar for 180 Pesos. Another problem is when the rain comes, which it frequently does in Catigan, you are going to get wet.

I thought long and hard about this problem and wondered why there was no jeepney service available. The answer I was given reminded me that despite its charms and beauty, the Philippines can sometimes be a lunatic republic.

Apparently many years before, there was a jeepney service between Toril and Catigan. However, when people started offering the unsafe motorbike service unofficially, demand for the jeepney waned and it gave up. It was around the time that the Catigan road was concreted, making motorbikes very popular. Some of those who acquired bikes after the concreting of the Catigan road then offered themselves and their bikes as a service and the people gladly accepted.

Why I regard this as lunatic is because the people themselves, by taking up the dangerous service of the motorbike unofficial service so readily, kind of ended up losing them their only safer and more reliable and comfortable option, the jeepney. I often wondered whether they regretted forcing the jeepney to give up. As a consequence, these dangerous and unreliable modes of public transport became their only option. Not something you expect the people to have given a lot of thought to at the time granted, but the end result in accepting the dangerous motorbike service meant it was going to end all other options. For most, a motorbike is not a problem and locals would not understand my point. It’s only when you want to take small kids with you that you realise that there is no safe way to do that.

This led me to wondering whether or not it may be a good idea for someone to invest in a minibus and take up where the jeepney had left off by offering safe and above all dry comfortable public transport. Not only a good business perhaps, but a benefit to the community.

I did my homework and worked out it could work for someone who was doing it themselves and wasn’t paying wages. It wouldn’t be a high profit but it could be a modest living for whoever was brave enough to risk it. I was confident of the need for such a service. Catigan is not densely populated by any means but there was possibilities for a service say every hour and a half. People get to know your times via a timetable and as long as it wasn’t too much more expensive than the existing motorbike service, I felt some if not all would appreciate the reliability, comfort and safety of such a service.

It’s only my guess as I had not conducted any studies or questionnaires and it was just a hunch. I know Filipinos always take the cheapest option. It used to amaze me that people would put their own flesh and blood into such danger by loading rider, wife, 2 kids and even a baby on a low powered bike which was clearly not able to cope with the load adequately. Watching them struggle to steer the overloaded bike due to the weight that it wasn’t designed to carry was quite disconcerting, yet they did. Filipinos only seem to recognise danger when it’s too late and someone has died. Even that doesn’t stop them more often than not.

This is not just a Catigan issue as I have seen it everywhere, even in Metro Manila. It’s always been that way and without meaning to defend insanity, I’m guessing simple economics dictate. Taking your own family around on an overloaded bike without helmets is madness to us expats. Here, it’s everyday life and it’s rarely questioned. I doubt many would understand what the fuss is about if you tried to point out the insanity of it.

So not entirely convinced a mini bus project was a good idea I mentioned it to others. Many half heartedly said it would be a good idea whilst others said that people will always go with the cheapest option, that being the bike. It was a valid point; I have seen that mindset over all the years I have been here, cheapest is best regardless of the discomfort and even the obvious danger. Many put their loved ones at risk daily based on that simple economic principal and to be fair, in a country where so many are struggling to survive, I think it’s fairly obvious as to why.

However, not everyone in Catigan is poor. As you travel the Catigan road, you pass many more affluent looking houses. Again, this could be an asset but another factor to consider was that the more affluent usually have cars. To start such a service would be very far from a safe bet. I would go as far as to call it a fairly risky project and could just as easily fail as succeed. The only way to find out really would be to just do it and see.

Whoever was so bold would have to go through the usual bureaucratic nightmare of obtaining permissions as well as registering the business which based on my experiences in government offices in Davao, could be a very stressful procedure dealing with extremely unhelpful staff who are simply hideous and pointless. I have a few tales to tell on that score but shall save it for another day. However, once it’s done, it’s done; and after you have all the bricks in place, off you go.

Another setback would be that even if it was a service that someone set up as a self-employed project and manned it themselves, realistically one person could only manage part of the day. If it started at say 7AM and the last run was at 8PM that means it would be finished by around 9 PM. Which in turn means a 14-hour working day and I’m guessing that’s too much even for the hardy and industrious Filipino. It would need to be 7 days a week also so obviously there would be a need to employ someone to help take some of the time as for one, it’s simply too much.

That’s fine if it’s a family business and you have a reliable relative to help you but if not then you’re going to have issues with trust, etc. Still, I didn’t see these as reasons to turn your back on such an idea as yes, these were problems but ones that with thought and effort could be overcome.

I considered all the negatives and was never fully convinced of its viability but it wasn’t any of those things that finally made me put the idea to bed. What finally ended my pre-occupation of thinking the possibilities through was something that was said. Sadly, the comment was valid and unfortunately, an issue so Filipino and at the same time somewhat lunatic. Still, it was something that for most would tip the balance towards thinking, “I won’t bother then.”

What was said was “the bike drivers would get angry” as it would jeopardise their income. People catching a minibus would to them be taking money out of their pockets. Just by allowing the bike service to exist in the first place meant the end to all possibility of safe transport in and out of Catigan for those unfortunate enough to have no other way of getting to Toril.

In other words, they had created a situation where they had made the people reliant on them and the people complied. Anything that was going to threaten the dependence of the local people on the bike service and offer them something better, safer and more reliable was going to upset the dozen or so bike service providers. I have no idea what angry could mean but I think it’s obvious that being so unpopular with a few in a small community could be hazardous to your health.

What they would do about it if anyone started a minibus service I have no idea but it’s entirely possible that if you become a threat you would at least be made to feel uncomfortable living in that community.

The end result being that local people have the unsafe and unreliable option only and nothing else is likely to take away the monopoly the bike drivers had created for themselves. Bike drivers monopolise the transport in and out of Catigan. It’s a sad thought that it’s only in their interests to keep the transport options in and out of Catigan limited. So the dangerous, uncomfortable sidecars and bikes rule the roost and it may be an overstatement to suggest they would do a rival any harm. However, it’s enough to put most off from providing something better.

So in conclusion, there are ways for the brave to exploit the many inadequacies and improve things for a community as well as themselves and make successful businesses in many situations around the Philippines, town and rural. The problem is with so many things here is that the minuses often outweigh the pluses and the hurdles just seem too immense.

A minibus service would be a huge plus for Catigan. The difficulties hold back progress. I would love to see places like Catigan given a decent transport service. I think the headache it would bring to such as a minibus public transport service provider would rule it out. I may be wrong and it could be accepted in the right spirit. Somehow though, it seems that if it’s not in the interests of those with a monopoly, it isn’t going to happen. Sound familiar?

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Filed under Culture, Impressions, Philippines, Travel

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