The newly-opened Berjaya Garden Restaurant and Culinary Centre. Pictures by Zuliantie Dzul and Norman Hui
Stalls selling fresh vegetables and fruits can be seen along the road inside the farm.
Hyundai Center For Green Innovation.
Tan cutting the ribbon to officially open the BGRCC.
Tito Tony.

Transformed from a ghost town to a farm village university, GK Enchanted Farm in the Philippines stands as an excellent centre nation’s drive to end poverty, writes Zuliantie Dzul

IT’S 7.15am on a Sunday. Our group, comprising members of the Malaysian media, is waiting outside the Berjaya Makati Hotel in Manila, Philippines, our home for the duration of our visit, for the shuttle bus. The heavy traffic of Manila, which promises to put Kuala Lumpur’s to shame, lies ahead of us.

Within minutes, our ride arrives and we settle down for the journey ahead. True to form, there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic, the congestion made worse by the many traffic lights along the way. Jeepneys, with their kitsch decorations and the most popular means of public transportation in the Philippines, are weaving in and out of the traffic. Tall buildings, old and new, make up the canvas of Metro Manila.

But all that concrete and greyness disappears as we enter Bulacan, about 50km off Manila. From a six-lane road, we’re now being driven along a two-lane narrow rural road flanked by small houses, shops and plenty of greenery. Motorised rickshaws hog the road, weaving and honking noisily. Folks in their Sunday best make their way to church.

Our shuttle slows down as we enter Angat town and onto a dirt road. A signage with the word “GK Enchanted Farm” set against a background of colourful flowers and a mushroom catches our eyes.

The Gawad Kalinga (GK) Enchanted Farm in Barangay (village) Encanto in Angat, Bulacan is, as its name and location suggest, a special place like no other.

The farm is the first farm, village, and “university” rolled into one in Asia, a place where dreams and ideas are nurtured and realised. It’s utilised as a platform for social business to help local farmers and create wealth in the countryside.

Today, a momentous ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place at this special farm involving Tan Sri Vincent Tan, founder of Malaysia’s Berjaya Group and the founder of the farm, Antonio Meloto, as the former unveils Berjaya Garden Restaurant and Culinary Arts Centre (BGRCC) right here on the grounds of the farm.

BGRCC is a training facility that supports the farm’s dynamic role as an incubator-hub for the country’s growing social entrepreneurship. The food served in the restaurant will be locally-produced, sourced and processed, providing livelihood for local farmers. The centre will also be a school-within-community, where students and social entrepreneurs can develop their culinary skills and products.

BUILD AND RESTORE

The Philippine Statistics Authority, in its report on the country’s official poverty statistics for the full year of 2015, stated that poverty incidence among Filipinos that year was estimated at 21.6 per cent. To date, 70 per cent of Filipinos remain landless, with some 40 per cent squatting in urban areas.

Gawad Kalinga (GK) means to give care in Tagalog. Although this movement was established in 2003 to end poverty, actual work had already begun as early as 1994 in Bagong Silang, Caloocan City, which is the biggest squatter relocation site in Metro Manila. The movement built homes for the homeless and provided the basic necessities such as electricity and water.

GK is now being implemented in almost 2,000 communities across the Philippines and other countries such as Indonesia, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea. It has set 2024 as the target year to bring the Philippines out of the Third World status by raising the livelihood of five million families living in poverty.

“Selamat datang,” a bespectacled Filipino man with a mop of white hair greets us, smiling. With his weathered blue shirt and jeans folded at the bottom, he looks like any regular Joe. But he’s not. He’s the man behind GK and has the proud accolade of being the most trusted man in the Philippines, as chosen by Reader’s Digest in 2010. Many people in the Philippines know his name — Antonio Meloto, the founder of Gawad Kalinga.

“I hope you’ll enjoy your visit today,” says Meloto or Tito Tony as he’s fondly known (Tito means uncle in Tagalog) as he welcomes our contingent.

Tito Tony, born in 1950 to a low middle-class family, was already exposed to poverty since childhood, living near a shoreline squatter community in Bacolod City. He dedicated his college years to preparing for a career that would take his family out of the poverty of their past.

A recipient of several distinguished honours and awards, including 2012 Social Entrepreneur of the World title, Tito Tony has inspired not just his family but also over a million people in the GK community, as well as volunteers throughout the country and around the world.

MALAYSIAN AID

The farm, shares Tito Tony, was nothing but a ghost town and wasteland when he first clapped eyes on it. “It was a place for rebels and criminals. People were afraid of this place.”

Although the farm has been in operation for only six years, it has expanded considerably in size. It initially occupied two hectares of land but today is spread across 43 hectares complete with halls, development centres, classrooms, animal farms, production houses, villas as well as a boutique hotel and spa, among other things. It has spawned immense generosity and massive volunteerism from around the world, Malaysia included.

“We’re building up this place, slowly. Now we have centres for sustainable development with the involvement of big companies like Hyundai, Microsoft, Shell and Berjaya,” shares Tito Tony.

The Berjaya Group’s collaboration with GK started in 2012, when its founder Tan, through Berjaya Philippines Inc, pledged to contribute PHP300 million (RM26.75 million) over three years to GK for the construction of houses for Filipinos affected by Typhoon Sendong and other natural calamities, as well as for poverty-stricken families across the country.

After a hearty buffet lunch at the culinary centre, we proceed to a room where the press conference is to take place. Three male youths stand before us. One used to be a squatter living under the bridge as his home was washed away by Typhoon Ondoy in 2009. In just two years, the boys learnt to speak English and French, and have gone on to set up a refreshing health beverage enterprise.

Meanwhile, two of them have been invited to speak at the Unesco in Paris, France, a country where a significant number of Filipinos take up employment as nannies and maids.

Says Tito Tony, eyes, shining with pride: “We, the GK community, try to discover the magic in every human being. When we do good, we nurture goodness.” And the three boys are testament to this.

ENCHANTED

We take a walk around the farm after the Press conference. Luck is on our side that day because there’s a mini trade fair going on selling local products such as food, toys, fashion ware and handicraft.

We proceed further inside the farm, passing rows of houses where poor families reside. Most of them work in the farm and their children attend the nearby school. They consider this place paradise having come from their slum dwellings before. It warms my heart to hear the sounds of laughter from the happy children around me. Suffice to say, it doesn’t take much to be enchanted by the beauty of this place. What Tito Tony and GK have done is nothing short of a miracle. One only needs an open heart. The foundation this place is built on is inspiring but the magic lies in its people, and the spirit of caring and sharing they possess.

Due to a tight itinerary, we weren’t able to stay for too long here. But before I left, Tito Tony passes me a parting gift — his book, the second edition of Builder Of Dreams. And what he wrote towards the end of the book tugged at my heartstrings: “Give the poor beauty and quality, not only pity and charity.”

A great admirer of the farm’s founder, Tan concludes: “Like I always say, the rich need the poor to support their business. So the rich must give back as much as possible. It’s time to play our role as a good corporate citizen so we’re deserving of the support we get from the community. GK is a fantastic organisation. They’re helping the poor, building homes for them and they don’t even have to pay for it. Other countries should have an organisation like this.”

Indeed we should. Malaysia needs people like Tito Tony and we too need to be enchanted. To all the closet heroes in Malaysia who are waiting to do something for a great cause, here’s something to be inspired by.