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Sustainability and Originality Boost Philippines Handicraft Sector

Sustained and robust growth in the Philippines gifts, décor and houseware sector attracted a considerable number of local and international vendors to the recent Manila FAME expo, the country's premier design and lifestyle tradeshow.

Photo: Finely fashioned in the Philippines: Manila FAME puts the focus on domestic design.
Finely fashioned in the Philippines: Manila FAME puts the focus on domestic design.
Photo: Finely fashioned in the Philippines: Manila FAME puts the focus on domestic design.
Finely fashioned in the Philippines: Manila FAME puts the focus on domestic design.

Innovation and sustainability were key drivers at Manila FAME, a bi-annual event that aims to promote the Philippines as a reliable sourcing destination for high-quality and design-oriented home, fashion, holiday, architectural and interior products. Although the country's export sector experienced lacklustre performance in 2018, the gifts, décor and houseware industry enjoyed robust growth, with a 23.9% increase, rising to US$206.34 million from $166.54 million in 2017.

The industry receives government support from the Philippines Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), a key supporter of the show. With a number of DTI regional booths at the event displaying products from a particular geographic area, Alren Neri, a Development Specialist with the government body, outlined its priorities, saying: "We are here to promote the fabrics, beads and the weaves of Northern Mindanao, which are the main handicrafts from that region. Many products are made by indigenous people and most of the businesses are micro enterprises, so we are here to assist them in penetrating the export and mainstream domestic markets. We also provide support in terms of training, product development and help in setting up websites."

For many vendors, sustainability was a critical factor in their products' appeal. A clear example here was Marsse Tropical Timber Plantations, which uses wood from its plantation in Pangasinan, north of Manila, to produce a range of kitchenware under its brand, Sustainably Made. Explaining its approach, Mara Sebastian, the firm's Marketing Manager, said: "All our products come directly from our family-owned plantation. We started about 30 years ago, planting mainly Honduran mahogany, Indonesian teak and a sprinkling of local trees.

"When we started harvesting in 2012, we were originally making items such as flooring, decking and furniture, but because we had a lot of off-cuts, we decided to use them to make smaller products such as kitchenware, chopping boards, mobile-phone stands, candleholders and coasters.

"Key to our products' appeal is that we only use wood that comes from our own trees, so we have a clear story to tell. We harvest our trees when they hit 20 years old, and we now have about 135,000 standing trees of which we cut no more than 500 each year – and those are spread throughout the plantation."

Vanity & Queens Home, a small artisanal outfit that makes a wide range of natural soap products, was also finding that interest in sustainability was helping boost sales. Noting the growing interest in health and ecological issues among consumers, Company Owner Queenie Rodriguez said: "The market has changed considerably since I first started in 1999. The term 'wellness' wasn't used in those days, but nowadays I don't even have to explain the benefits of essential oils to younger customers – they already know. Originally, I would sell soaps in boxes; now I sell them in biodegradable wraps, and customers are asking me if they can have the soap without a wrapper."

The company makes soaps free from artificial additives, and sources local ingredients wherever possible, such as lemongrass and citronella. Sales are mainly local, either directly to consumers through Facebook or through Naturale Market, a local retailer that has two zero-waste stores in Metro Manila.

Believing the products also have international appeal, she said: "We can compete internationally because we don't use palm oil, which has environmental issues. Instead, we use local coconut oil and cocoa butter, which are good quality and plentiful here, so our costs are competitive."

Photo: Marsse’s climate-friendly kitchenware.
Marsse's climate-friendly kitchenware.
Photo: Marsse’s climate-friendly kitchenware.
Marsse's climate-friendly kitchenware.
Photo: Sustainable soap from Vanity & Queens Home.
Sustainable soap from Vanity & Queens Home.
Photo: Sustainable soap from Vanity & Queens Home.
Sustainable soap from Vanity & Queens Home.

Another soap producer – but one that had taken a slightly different tack – was Pinctada South Sea Pearl Soap. Detailing the company's somewhat offbeat approach, Chief Executive Andrew Wijangco said. "We have a pearl farm in Palawan that produces South Sea pearls. Typically, such farms have a lot of rejects, pearls that are not quite the right shape. We decided to grind them up into powder to use in soap.

"This type of soap has long been popular with the Chinese. Pearl powder helps to stimulate the skin to produce collagen, which is good for the complexion. It's still early days for us, though, as we only launched in October this year."

The company has already been successful in signing up deals with local distribution channels, including Beauty Manila, a large local beauty-products retailer. Looking to the future, Wijangco said: "We are now looking for exclusive distributorships for other countries. We think that Europe and the US can be big markets for us."

One local company that has already been successful in the export markets is Art 24, a manufacturer of small figurines. Introducing the current scope of the operation, Chief Operating Officer Mark Santo said: "We are primarily an exporter, with our customers largely in Central Europe, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain.

"Our figurines are made from resin fibre with metal reinforcement, and are hand painted. We use automotive paint because it lasts and can be used outdoors. Our sizes range from about three centimetres up to about one-and-a-half metres. This gives us an edge, as our competitors only produce bigger figurines. We started targeting the US last year, and we now have the Guggenheim Museum as our biggest client in North America."

A number of overseas companies were also attending the show, many understandably keen to make inroads into the fast-growing local market, including a delegation of handicraft manufacturers from Sri Lanka. One of the most high profile of these was Sachin Ratnapala, Co-Founder of Xylo Industries. Explaining just what had brought him to the event, he said: "We are here as part of a group of 10 vendors from Sri Lanka promoting ceramics, tableware, woodcraft, clay and floral and hand looms and bags.

"Our company makes kitchenware, including reusable coasters and table mats, as well as bathmats and bamboo straws. All our products are made using recycled or upcycled materials in line with our commitment to empowering local communities and protecting the environment."

Positive about both the event and his company's prospects in the Philippines, he said: "This show has definitely been good for us. We see huge potential here as our products are quite different to those already available. We are not competing on price, but rather in terms of originality and the handmade quality of our range."

Among the clutch of Hong Kong companies exhibiting at the event was Jacksons & Brothers, a long-established manufacturer of stainless-steel bathroom products. Explaining his company's decision to attend, Managing Director Jacky Lam said: "We are here because the Hong Kong Trade Development Council offered us an opportunity to come and promote our products in the Southeast Asian market. It has a programme that helps subsidise Hong Kong companies that are looking to expand more widely across Asia.

"We currently make OEM products mainly for US and European customers, but via China's Belt and Road Initiative we want to expand in Asia. We are here to find direct clients, particularly hotel developers, but we are also interested in working with big retailers on the design of unique products.

"Our advantage is quality assurance. Most of our customers are major companies in the US and Europe who demand very high standards. Furthermore, we offer considerable flexibility, as we are used to working within a wide range of local compliance requirements."

Photo: Manila FAME Autumn 2019: Innovation, sustainability and Sri Lankan ceramics all under one roof.
Manila FAME Autumn 2019: Innovation, sustainability and Sri Lankan ceramics all under one roof.
Photo: Manila FAME Autumn 2019: Innovation, sustainability and Sri Lankan ceramics all under one roof.
Manila FAME Autumn 2019: Innovation, sustainability and Sri Lankan ceramics all under one roof.

The autumn 2019 edition of Manila FAME took place from 17-19 October at Metro Manila's World Trade Center.

Marilyn Balcita, Special Correspondent, Manila

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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