Startups and alternatives: Stop-gap responses to COVID-19 economic woes

For a travel agent like Maria Fe Cantillo-Rofule, trips abroad are a customary part of her work life. She has led numerous groups of vacationers around the world that, in a way, it has become a form of routine. However, last January 26, a trip to Hong Kong became anything but routine: popular tourist spots like Disneyland, Ngong Ping 360, and Ocean Park began shutting down, as did most of the local businesses. Eventually, its borders were sealed shut too. With the trip cut short, Maria returned home to a Philippines that was yet to feel the full brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. Little did she know that the worst was yet to come.

In a matter of weeks, the country would detect an accelerating viral outbreak, and strict lockdown measures ensued. For many Filipinos, the quarantine halted not just the flow of daily life, but also sources of livelihood. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, people like Maria have been seeking alternatives to make it through these trying times.

In limbo

Of the many sectors affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism was probably one of the hardest hit. With travel being limited for the foreseeable future and people having less inclination to spend on vacations and trips, the fate of the tourism sector seems to be largely up in the air, and will probably remain so until the health crisis is wrestled under control. 

“Before the lockdown, we were already hit by the Taal [Volcano] eruption,” laments Maria, managing director of Pakisuyo Travel & Tours. Due to the two calamities coming in quick succession, the early months of 2020 had been incredibly taxing on travel agencies such as hers.

The same can be said for the airline industry; all non-essential flights were put on hold, keeping student pilots such as Louise* grounded indefinitely. The situation forewarns of troubles on the horizon,  not only because the pandemic has hampered their studies, but also because the landscape of the airline industry in the post-pandemic world appears extremely uncertain.

“The airline industry is not looking good due to the virus,” Louise explains. Should she be able to complete her studies in the near future, it is still very unlikely that airlines would be looking to hire new pilots.

Shifting gears

As the circumstances worsened, many businesses in the country operated at drastically low rates or were forced to temporarily shut down. “We started to [plan] our other business strategies at the end of the second month of lockdown,” says Maria. Drawing inspiration from other similar business ventures and re-envisioning their original Pakisuyo Center, which focused on processing documents for Overseas Filipino Workers, she and her husband relaunched Paki Services for door-to-door deliveries of groceries, medicine, and other essential items.

Meanwhile, Louise found Thai milk tea as an appealing product for her startup business, intending “to cater something different to [her] neighbors and give them a hint of traveling.” She and her cousin have been brewing and bottling the beverage in-house, and dispatching them thrice a week. Their business so far has been a hit; a bevy of good reviews have come in, with customers often saying that the milk tea “reminds them of Bangkok”.

Trying times

Though business might be booming, obstacles will always be present. Maria cites that outsourcing their couriers from third-party companies raises the cost for their customers, and problems passing through checkpoints are common—all on top of the fear of contracting the virus, given the increased exposure to more people in different places.

As for Louise, the lack of a steady supply of raw materials such as bottles has proven to be a considerable challenge. Additionally, there have been instances where unclaimed orders from bogus buyers forced them to give the drinks away for free or keep it for themselves, thus losing out on potential earnings.

Furthermore, seeing as many new business ventures such as these have been emerging since the start of quarantine, new developments have arisen on a national level; the Department of Finance recently released a memorandum requiring all online sellers to register their businesses to the Bureau of Internal Revenue—requiring them to pay taxes.

“This is not new,” Maria notes, remaining relatively composed as she expounds, “If you do business, you need to be legally registered and pay appropriate taxes.” Louise, however, is worried that having their already-meager earnings cut may become too much of a burden for online sellers, threatening their financial security.  “People are just trying to rise up on their own,” she laments.

A weather eye on the horizon

Intending for her startup to only be a short-term solution, Louise still dreams of one day taking to the skies as a certified pilot with the world at her fingertips. But for now, she has tea to brew and orders to deliver.

For Maria, however, her new venture stands as one of her few remaining prospects given how travel agencies are still not allowed to operate. She wagers that the business would thrive with time and that opportunities for expansion would arrive in the future.

“We need to do this to survive, [using] what’s left [of] us,” she asserts, recognizing that dozens of employees’ livelihoods also rely on her business staying afloat. “Closure is not [an option].”

Maria’s and Louise’s dire circumstances and tentative fixes are not isolated cases. People from all backgrounds and all walks of life have been turning to alternative livelihoods—working to make ends meet and do the most they can amid what they hope is only a temporary plight. This may mean straying from the paths they initially mapped out for their careers and lives, demanding that people adapt on their own even as resources and support structures remain inadequate. It remains to be seen whether these initiatives can serve as stop-gap measures or will stay and direct drastic shifts in the way the local business sector operates.

*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.

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