Woven PH: Weaving Change in the Lives of Women Artisans of Basey, Samar

I first came to learn about the banig weavers of Basey, Samar many moons ago when on a pre-Yolanda morning, I explored the entirety of San Juanico Bridge on foot. I arrived in Samar with no destination in mind until a local I encountered pointed me to a fascinating place. “You can go to Basey, it is a small town not far from here. There’s an old church there and a cave where you will see women weavers making beautiful banig”, he told me in Tagalog.

"Banig" is a handwoven mat made from dried seagrass leaves and used primarily for sleeping and sitting in most East Asian countries like the Philippines. The word “banig” instantly piqued my interest. It brought back childhood memories in my grandmother’s house where we used to sleep on one. After learning that the local who approached me is a habal-habal driver, I immediately hopped on the back of his motorcycle and rode off to the town of Basey.

the Banig Weavers of Basey

Most of the women weavers of Basey converge every morning inside Saob Cave—which is located a few meters away from the side of a highway. ‘We prefer weaving inside this cave because the cool temperature is conducive in keeping the tikog grass (the banig’s main raw material) soft and bendable”, a weaver explained to me in Tagalog. The habal-habal driver asked one of the weavers how much they earn. The woman answered that they take home an average of 150 pesos or less every week. My heart sunk.

The "Banig" I bought in Basey, Samar
Little did I know that three years after typhoon Yolanda stuck the Visayas in 2013, a social enterprise called Woven PH will be established with aims of ensuring fair benefits to the women weavers and also to uplift the banig weaving industry of Basey.

Enter Woven PH

Woven PH was founded by John Francia and Trish Lim in 2016 but the idea for a social enterprise came even before that. In 2014, the two worked together on an area development study focusing on Basey, Samar for ABS CBN's Lingkod Kapamilya headed by the late Gina Lopez. Compelled to do more, Francia immersed himself in the community for almost a year—taking advantage of the Jesuit Volunteer Program by requesting to be assigned in Basey.

Woven PH and their community partners in Basey
During that period, Francia and Lim was able to organize a group of women weavers which they call "community craft associations" as well as creating product development modules to better market the banig woven products of Basey.

The long-standing mission of Woven PH is to continue pouring economic benefits into the local communities of Basey—through its weaving and embroidery industry and help artisan weavers earn more. “As a social enterprise, we don’t just buy and sell; we design for the community. We don’t just provide employment and market access to weavers; we rig the industry in their favor” said Woven PH’s statement.

"For years and years, there has been inequitable distribution in the industry thus limiting the price of weavers’ creations at a very unfair amount. This inequality has contributed to the art of weaving becoming a dying craft. With Woven, we wanted to show them the real value of their craft and at the same time keeping it alive" Woven Co-Founder and CEO Trish Lim said.

From earning a measly 600 pesos per month before, the more than 40 banig weavers of Basey organized by Woven PH, now earns more than double of that amount.

Some of the Banig weavers of Basey, Samar
"Right now, we are trying to raise their earnings to 4,000 to 5,000 a month as we try to balance it with the market focusing on promotion, product development and looking for buyers and artists who wants to collaborate. We also have a project called "Woven on the Move", where we bring weavers from Basey to Manila and take them to schools to impart their cultural heritage of weaving to kids" Lim adds.

Laptop sleeves made from woven Banig
Aside from rescuing the dying art of banig weaving, Woven PH has also come up with a millennial-friendly banig-woven items. Bags and wallets were already being sold as souvenirs for tourists. So, we came up with gadget sleeves first because millennials today are never without their phones, tablets, or laptops,” Lim said.

Woven Lingkat
In today’s time when the banig is almost reduced to a nostalgic artifact of the past, it is refreshing to see the renaissance of banig creation being introduced to the current generation. Thanks to Woven PH, the banig weavers of Basey Samar—apart from reaping fair benefits—are also now having the right platform to showcase their beautiful craft.

Photos by Woven PH