By Mark Louis F. FerrolinoSpecial Features Writer

For the founders of AKABA Ltd. Design Co., being different is not a bad thing — it’s a way to make a difference and create an impact to the lives of others.

From a school project to a fast-growing lifestyle brand today, AKABA serves as a platform for young entrepreneurs Emmanuel Joseph Mariano, Joseph Daniel Lumain and Alexander Fong to uplift the lives of indigenous groups and showcase products that represent Filipino craftsmanship and hard work in the local and global market.

AKABA, which was founded in 2014, creates unique and stylish bags that feature handwoven fabrics made by the weaving communities across the country. With AKABA, each piece is a unique work of art where traditional designs meet modern functionality.

“We saw the value in the handwoven fabrics and we want it to be something that people can be proud of and even the weavers themselves,” Mr. Fong, AKABA business development manager, told BusinessWorld in an interview. “In everything that we did, we have the weavers in mind. We don’t change their designs — it is based on their culture and beliefs — what we do is work around it.”

AKABA’s partnership with the weaving communities has indeed created a significant impact to the lives of local artisans. As Mr. Lumain, AKABA chief operating officer and social enterprise director, said, AKABA serves as an avenue for these communities to continuously have a stable source of income and for their textiles to be patronized not just by the Filipino community but also worldwide.

“I think it’s the mind-set that changed… With our partnership with these communities, we witnessed how they were able to see the value of their craftsmanship, of their artistry. At the same time, their perspectives on life have changed. A lot of them have seen that they can be so much more than they used to be,” Mr. Lumain said.

Aside from the social advocacy embedded in its business, what’s more inspiring with AKABA is the individuals behind its monumental growth. These young social entrepreneurs all acquired their bachelor’s degree in Ateneo de Manila University, with Mr. Fong and Mr. Lumain as former Management majors, and Mr. Mariano as European Studies major.

They have combined each of their expertise and experience to run the business well, led by Mr. Mariano as the chief executive officer and creative director, who also had an actual experience in running the business of his family. 

In its early years, AKABA solely relied on selling knapsacks online through a starting capital they acquired after joining various local competitions. In 2015, the team joined a regional competition in Jakarta, Indonesia, where they had the chance to meet investors for their growing social enterprise. From the investment, they were able to scale up and develop new line of products including backpacks; and travel, laptop, shoulder, messenger and duffel bags.

Today, AKABA has stores located in Makati City and Quezon City. Its products are also being sold in the United States, Canada, Italy, and Australia through its network of retail partners and authorized resellers.

“I don’t think we will be achieving this same level of success if we were just two or just one of us. Having ambition on your own actually gets tiring but having three people with the same type of ambition parang hindi naman siya gaanong nakakapagod because you are with people who want to be at the same place at the same time,” Mr. Mariano said.

When asked about the tips they can give to aspiring entrepreneurs, each of them shared their advices. For Mr. Lumain, he said: “Be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.” He explained that coming into a journey of being an entrepreneur is not for the weak-hearted, it requires a lot of hard work and sacrifices.

For his part, Mr. Fong gave cautioned aspiring entrepreneurs that managing a business comes with great responsibilities. “You have to be totally involved as other persons rely on you.”

And for Mr. Mariano, he said that starting entrepreneurs need to get advices from the right people and learn to be less selfish. “Being in a business is really a selfish thing but when you’re running the business you have to be really selfless.”

This year, AKABA is planning to further grow its footprint outside the country and become an international or at least a Southeast Asian brand. The team is hoping to tap other textiles market from the region like Laos, Malaysia and Thailand then utilize it like what they did in the Philippines.

“We have a very specific vision for this company, we know where we want it to go. Yeah, every company has a vision but I think we have the determination to get there,” Mr. Mariano said.