Grassroots Governance

I guess you could say that the kind of people and nation we become is largely determined by the kind of people we admire. Because of the power of the media, in general, our people tend to look up to celebrities, whether famous or notorious. This can be seen in the kind of leaders we elect, and the kind of careers our children aspire for.

Today, our heroes are a boxer, beauty queens, an ill-mannered and controversial president, some good looking movie stars and other entertainers. In terms of careers, the most prestigious is that of doctor. Lawyering is another career aspired to, given how many still take the bar exams, despite the pathetic state of our justice system.

Sadly, there seems little regard for scientists and engineers. But if we look to the future, the world belongs to these experts in making and changing the way things are made or done. Even today, it is obvious which are the most successful nations. The United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and many countries in Europe. These countries have made great strides in making life more comfortable and pleasant for their citizens and the rest of the world because of technological and scientific breakthroughs made by some of their highly educated citizens. Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Frederick Smith of Fedex, Jack Ma of Alibaba, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergev Brin of Google, Akiro Morita of Sony, and many innovators in communications technology.

What we don’t actually realize is that we have in fact some cases of Filipinos who have made world class innovations in how to make or do things. They just have not been given much attention and have almost disappeared from our formal history.

Perhaps the most successful in terms of economic success is Diosdado “Dado” Banatao, the son of a poor farmer from Cagayan Valley. He managed to get an engineering degree from the Mapua Institute of Technology (bravo to that school) and later got a job at Boeing in California, helping to design some elements of their aircraft. He eventually got into Stanford University for a degree in computer sciences and worked in neighboring Silicon Valley. His brilliance, creativity and hard work helped him develop the microchips which were adopted by NASA and eventually by IT firms such as Microsoft. Banatao is a dollar millionaire, perhaps even a billionaire. He has also gotten involved with some IT education programs in the Philippines, including those in the University of the Philippines and the Asian Institute of Management. Dado Banatao certainly deserves to be hyped as a real hero by our people. He has helped to change the way the world does things today. Someone to be emulated by our youth as demonstrating the limitless possibilities for anyone who is willing to work hard.

Another deserving model is Dr. Fe Del Mundo, the first female accepted into Harvard Medical School. Dr. Del Mundo, who founded and ran the Children’s Medical Center, did not limit her pediatric practice to urban children. She invented a bamboo-based incubator kit, appropriate technology in our country where millions of families still do not have access to the formal healthcare system. It would be interesting to know if this invention is being used extensively in isolated rural areas today. I understand it is used in Indonesia.

Dr. Conrado Dayrit pioneered studies that discovered and promoted the healthy values of coconut oil. Today, his son, Toby Dayrit, continues to advocate the benefits from coconut based products. Virgin coconut oil is an ingredient used in the globally successful hypoallergenic skin and hair care brands developed by dermatologist Dr. Vermen Verallo-Rowell. They have clinics in New York, Paris, Tokyo, London and other key cities in the world.

Gregorio Y. Zara, a national scientist, invented the first two-way videophone.

Dr. Justino Arboleda, an agricultural engineer from Bicol who earned a doctorate from Tokyo University, invented the “coco-net” which is being used in many construction projects, including those in public works, as a low cost innovation in soil erosion control. He also exports coco peat to Australia for use in their cattle farms and as inputs to fertilizer, and coco fiber to China, which is used to firm up bed mattresses. The demand for mattresses has grown as more and more families in China have become more prosperous and no longer want to sleep on hard floors. Arboleda’s coconet production system involves many families in the provinces whom he trained in the production system, enabling them to rise above the poverty line.

Jaime “Jim” Imperial Ayala, a Harvard MBA graduate who came home to the Philippines as country director for the consulting firm McKinsey, eventually joined Ayala Land as its CEO. Today, he has become a social entrepreneur, disseminating the widespread use of a solar-powered lamp in isolated areas around the country. Jim Ayala was motivated by his embrace of a Bible-based Christianity; and he and his family have made many sacrifices, including selling some properties, to fulfill his dream of making life better for rural families. The solar lamp, which was invented by a Stanford student, helps the children study their lessons. It also helps fisher folk who go out to sea at night. Ayala’s management degree has helped him develop a market system in which the rural poor are able to pay for the lamp with microfinance loans. The feedback is positive. The payments are up to date; and the rural families find that the lamp has enabled the children to do well in school; and saved them money from fuel used in their old fire-hazard lamps. One day, perhaps, this social enterprise can realize profits, if we go by C.K. Prahalad’s thinking in his book that there is fortune to be made at the bottom of the pyramid. This could encourage courageous business investors to look for opportunities to do well while doing good.

Perhaps the Departments of Education, Science and Technology, Agriculture, and Trade can team up to produce and disseminate educational materials to propagate and popularize technology innovators and drivers as our new heroes. There is much that can be done online. Perhaps it is a little late for the present generation; but the future ones are still promising.

We need new heroes. Heroes who make and do useful things that make life better for our people.


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.