Each day, Maria's Kitchen, a bakery in Laguna, sells tray after tray of ube cheese pandesal (cheese and yam infused bread rolls) and other breads and cakes.
But there is more to these baked goods than belly-rubbing yumminess; the simple and elegant pandan leaf boxes that bear them tell a story of their own.
The boxes are the meticulous work of weavers from remote villages in Luisiana, Laguna (a four-hour drive from Manila), who have honed the skill of weaving pandan leaves over generations, making bags, boxes and various crafts from the leaves of 100-year-old trees.
And in the midst of COVID-19, where demand for their craft has dried to a trickle, the boxes are providing steady, much-needed income for the weavers.
"The pandemic really took a really big hit on us. Our past customers never came back," shares Nenita Racoma, a 59-year-old weaver who was taught the craft at seven years old.
A Bakery That Warms Hearts
The idea of using the boxes came from Kwin Garcia-Anino, one of Maria's Kitchen's three founders, whose mother-in-law is from the same village as the weavers.
A long-time fan of pandan crafts, she previously set up a business in 2017 to sell their products but stopped focusing on raising her children.
Fast forward to 2020, when the pandemic took the world by storm. Kwin, who was working as a financial advisor and event organiser, saw her income drop. Together with her friends Kristine Garcia and Zyra Porca, they decided to start a baking business.
"Since we like to eat, obviously, why not try exploring the food business?" says Kwin with a laugh. "It turned into a passion and took my mind away from the pandemic."
Maria's Kitchen was a success, creating a "happy problem" for its founders. "When more orders started to come in, our packaging supplies could not hold up," Kwin recalls. "We decided to return to pandan packaging as it was our first love."
Pandan, she explains, grows plentifully in parts of the Philippines, and offers a more eco-friendly alternative to single-use plastic packaging.
And as Kwin would discover, it would become a lifeline to weavers in a time of crisis too. "When I met the weavers in these remote areas, they told me they really had a hard time with less orders and transport restrictions. So I told my partner, we'll use pandan packaging so we can help the weavers in Luisiana."
Where Altruism And Artisanal Meet
Pandan weaving requires skill and dedication, from cutting down leaves from the trees to removing the thorns and shaping them to the required size, to drying and softening them on presses that weigh over 1,000kg — all before anything can be woven.
The result is a durable, reusable material that can be made into items like baskets, boxes, hats, mats and more, customised to the users' needs.
Before the pandemic, weavers made about 500 pesos (US$9.90) a day for their craft and labour — enough to help support their families.
"I am very proud because weaving helped us survive...you can see that weaving is the main source of income here. There are big houses and you will see there pressing machines below. Those pandan leaves sent their children to school," says Rose Rondilla, a weaver.
Even though times are tough, Rose and Nenita try to make sure everyone in the community has a chance to earn. "If I have orders, I do my best to share the workload with them. I also purchase their products so they don't need to sell it to marketplaces far away. I understand the struggle, so whatever I earn, I share it with them," says Nenita.
When the orders are ready, Kwin and her partners will drive the long, narrow bumpy roads to the villages to collect the boxes. " We don't mind the hassle, we really just want to be of help with their livelihood," says Kwin.
Although many weavers have been forced to lower their prices amid low demand, Kwin is steadfast in honouring whatever weavers quote her. "I have an idea of what the struggle of losing an income is like, especially during the pandemic, and I do not want to add to their suffering," she shares.
It is a spirit that resonates with Maria's Kitchen's customers. "When we told our customers that every purchase with pandan packaging could help the weavers of Luisiana, we received a lot of support from them," says Kwin. "The customers are happy because they want to support the community we are helping."
Nenita hopes other weavers will take heart and press on. "Don't lose heart and just continue making those bags. Every problem has a solution," she says.
In the long run, Kwin hopes to see newfound appreciation for the weavers' craft. "Pandan weaving is a cultural representation of their town that can be passed on to the next generation. I hope we can help them in preserving that," she adds.
This story first appeared on Our Better World