Mayat-an Handicrafts: Weaving Dreams into Success

To this day, Rovilyn Mayat-an remains intrigued by the twist of fate that spiraled her to success. Because more than once, opportunity knocked when she hit rock bottom, Mayat-an feels that there must be cosmic intervention in how she lifted her small business, Mayat-an Handicrafts, off the ground into a multi-million enterprise, just when all was looking bleak in her life.

But listening more closely to her story, it becomes apparent that it was not only sheer luck that saw her through dark times, but a will to improve her life no matter what. And lots of hard work.

Mayat-an had just opened a sack of freshly woven baskets from Ilocos Sur when I came to interview her. She sat in the middle of what is her living room turned into production area. It was after school hours and in another corner of the room were her children, sorting out wild bamboo strips to be used for weaving baskets. Close to the window side, two women sewers were busy cutting and fashioning out woven cloth weaves into bags. The atmosphere thrived with women energies that made for an easy exchange of talk.

I first admired the beautiful finished products hanging from the ceiling and on shelves that lined the wall. Mayat-an is known for having innovatively mixed two ethnic crafts of Northern Luzon in weaving — that of earth colored bamboo with woven ethnic fabric in every imaginable hue. Her production ranges from fashion handbags, backpacks and purses. “I have seen President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo carrying my bag in one of her television appearances. So with Che-Che Lazaro,” Mayat-an beams with pride.

Mayat-an does not stand from her chore as she invites me warmly to sit by her for the interview. Media exposure is not as novel to her by now but still not a thing of the ordinary. She brings out a bamboo bag from where she brings out a smaller bag and still another. “These have just arrived and they are packed compactly this way. We have to still spread them out under the sun to completely dry,” she explains.

With ease, Mayat-an says that earning her own money always seemed a part of her since childhood. “When I was in grade 3, I used to bring candies to sell in school. Then in third year high school, I took a summer job at Puyat Farms. (This is adjacent to Asin where she lives and spent her high school and college days.) We were harvesting endless rows of strawberries and even when our styrofoam containers became heavy loads, an Israeli foreman kept pushing us to go,” she recalls. “I would cry while picking strawberries. Then an old woman told me that was how a farmer lived, and I thought of my peasant parents,” she says in mixed dialects.

Mayat-an did not have to work for money. In Baguio City, she stayed with her elder sister and back in Banaue, Ifugao where she comes from, she had parents who supported her. She just liked the feel of work and earning money, she recounts.

Mayat-an studied at the Benguet State University (BSU) where she finished a course in Agriculture. It did not seem to be her line, but taunted and intrigued by other folks back home that it was useless to send her to school, since she may just get herself pregnant. Instead, Mayat-an felt challenged to prove them wrong.

Mayat-an says that during those years, classmates and teachers were fascinated by ethnic accessories and clothes she wore whenever she came back from a school break from Banaue. “Through the semester, they would bare me of my ethnic things, and they would all be gone by the time it was time to go back home,” she says. It was the germ of an idea for brisk business for Mayat-an who was quick to notice that ordinary items back home were of exotic fashion value to city dwellers. That was back in the early 90s. On weekends, she sold snacks at the Puyat Farms, earning a thousand a day. Despite this, she also dutifully carried 20 kilos of chayote to supply market vendors from which she earned her daily fare and snacks.

Despite wild predictions that she would only live a bohemian life once she hit the big city, Mayat-an formalized her relationship with the man she married, Rudy, only close to graduation. “He did not come to my graduation day and I was very hurt. That became the source of our first fight,” she says. Mayat-an said that he had become very self-conscious of the fact that she was a college graduate and he, a mere farmer. He was not alone in that feeling. Mayat-an said that before he formalized her engagement, she brought him to her hometown so he would see for himself how desolate mountain life could get too.

Then reality struck after they were married. Stuck in Ifugao, she tried her hand at agricultural competition. She made her own compost and grew squash and ginger that won her the grand prize at a contest, among her five awards then. But money was hard and she was forced to get a job as a dealer of a pest control product. Like everything else she ventured into, Mayat-an excelled in this, and in spite of being gypped of almost half of her profit, she was still able to scrape a little to try her hand at a little business. Something, she says, she always felt was her forte.

Reserved at the back of her mind through all the years was the experience she had when she and her husband went to his hometown, a remote barrio in Ilocos Sur. A full sack of woven bamboo baskets cost her P800, which she sold for thrice the price in Banaue, which was a tourist spot. With the little money saved, she bought more baskets from Ilocos Sur and got into business.

Her eyes brighten at the memory of her first trade fair experience. By now, there is a sea of basket around us as her hands kept working while she told me her story. The room has the smell of freshly cut bamboo. The Department of Trade and Industry opened an opportunity for her to participate in a trade fair for free. She had no money to even make the first samples, but she said she had the two samples required per item when in fact she had only one each. From here, she got a US$7,000 order. But tragedy struck when her father met an accident. Everything she made went into his medical bills.

By the time, a second trade exhibit came around, she was despondent and cash strapped. When she recalls this, she begins to hold back tears. “I told my father I had lost my zest and purpose in life. “You are in my heart. Go on,” Mayat-an recalls her father telling her. “His face brightened and I could not turn him down. I went back to Manila and cried my heart out to my cousin,” she says. Mayat-an completed the requirements though for the second exhibit. She could not afford calling cards that were P300 per set. She only had P500 for the fare to submit samples, and the fare from Baguio back and forth was P560.

Now she laughs at the next memory. An importer gave an order worth $17,000 and asked for her bank account so she could deposit 50% of the payment. Mayat-an had no money, moreover no bank account to speak of. She and her cousin once more went into a flurry, borrowing P10,000 to open an account. A Baguio-based theater artist, Ferdie Balanag, who trusted her creativity and success potential poured in a few hundred thousands to cover the cost of materials while waiting for the down payment check in the bank to clear. They have been business partners since.

The rest is the sought after success story. Mayat-an Handicrafts now has 72 to over a hundred cloth weavers and continues to give income to bamboo bag weavers in remote Ilocos Sur. She has won several awards in the micro-enterprise story. She wants to get bigger so she can employ more people. Her father passed away soon after those final words, before she could get back to show him what a winner she was because of him.

Mayat-an is a recipient of the Women into the New Network for Entrepreneurial Reinforcement (WINNER) project from which she learned a lot of her managerial and technical skills. She attended an e-commerce seminar. “My products are on the Internet,” she says. “Check out,” she adds as she gladly hands me her brochure.

I make my way out through a little hill of bamboo bags after the interview. She has also finished unpacking the sacks and she brings me to her door down to the road where I could get a ride. Her husband stays and counts the baskets. More than any other success, Mayat-an points out to this one — the friendship with her husband that saw them through all their trials.

by: Marilou Guieb