Helping Women Entrepreneurs in the Philippine City of Cagayan de Oro

When we empower women, communities prosper and countries thrive

By Eileen San Juan and Raelita Legaspi | Sep 30, 2020 | ARTICLE

Through funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), ICMA is implementing the SURGE Project in Philippine cities to improve local capacity in inclusive and resilient urban development, improve local economic development, and expand economic connectivity and access between urban and rural areas.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down economic growth all over the world, crippling business operations, tourism profits, and consumer spending. Businesses closed, employers let go of some or all of their workers, and entrepreneurs had to come up with innovative ways to stay afloat. In Cagayan de Oro City, in the Northern Mindanao region of the Philippines, an initial report showed that the services sector—particularly wholesale, retail, and tourism-related businesses, are among the sectors hit hardest as a result of being categorized as nonessential production activities.

In 2019, there were 27,518 registered enterprises in Cagayan de Oro, 96.5% or 26,555 of which were micro and small enterprises. About 34% of these were able to access subsidies from the Department of Labor and Employment COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program. Many of these small and microenterprises are owned by women, and these women entrepreneurs find it difficult to remain in business during the pandemic. Their challenges include sourcing raw materials, gaining more customers, distributing products, access to credit, and business training and technology.

Research conducted by White & Case1 stated that women entrepreneurs in the Philippines face constraints that men do not. Some banks still prefer the husband’s signature or consent in financial transactions, and some still demand that the male partner co-sign any financial contract. Getting a loan approved is also challenging for most women entrepreneurs. When banks require collateral, borrowers must pledge their home or land. Women who lack these assets are placed in a difficult position.

However, the Philippines is still positioned as the most gender equal country in Asia, ranking 16th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020. The report ranks 153 countries in four categories: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The Philippines closed 80% of the labor force gap in 2019, as women outnumbered men in senior and leadership roles, as well in professional and technical fields.2

Through the years and now during the pandemic, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), through the Strengthening Urban Resilience for Growth with Equity (SURGE) Project, has worked with the local government and partners from the business sector and academia to help bolster the local economy of Cagayan de Oro City. Early this year, USAID and the local government initiated activities specifically to assist women entrepreneurs as part of a larger initiative, the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) Initiative.

The W-GDP Initiative was created to enhance opportunities for women so they can participate actively in the economy, contributing both to prosperity and national security. Established in February 2019, the W-GDP is the first whole-of-government effort by the U.S. government to promote women’s economic empowerment in a global sense.

Background: Entrepreneurship in Cagayan De Oro

Since 2016, USAID has worked closely with the local government of Cagayan de Oro to improve the ease of doing business for entrepreneurs and automate and enable online transactions for business and building permit applications, payment of taxes, and other fees. The local government provides support for micro-entrepreneurs in several ways. The Community Improvement Division (CID) provides livelihood training. The City Social Welfare and Development Office (CSWDO), with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), provides mentoring to prepare businesses to compete on the open market. Cagayan de Oro Trade and Investment Promotions Center (Oro-TIPC), in tandem with DTI, provides coaching and support for business continuity planning and adjusting to the new normal.

Oro-TIPC works to maintain business-enabling local conditions. This includes ensuring ease of doing business and providing investment incentives. Their investment priority areas used to be agribusiness, information and communications technology, logistics, and tourism. Now, micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) constitute Oro-TIPC’s special attention sector since MSMEs compose more than 90% of Cagayan de Oro’s 27,000 registered businesses, a shift that proved timely with the pandemic hitting the sector hard.

Oro-TIPC was originally created to form part of a tripartite partnership with the Misamis Oriental Provincial Office of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and Promote Northern Mindanao Foundation, Inc. (PRONORMIN). Oro-TIPC relies on this partnership to reach out to and assist its MSME client base.

Oro-TIPC is a perfect example of a women-led organization pursuing the growth of businesses and investments in the city. The team is composed mostly of women and is led by a woman entrepreneur who sits on the board of a homegrown corporation, and who closely collaborates with a female USAID/SURGE Project city program coordinator with an impressive legacy of service in the public sector. With this, Oro-TIPC understands the unique challenges of women-owned enterprises and considers what projects and programs will most benefit women entrepreneurs.

To support women-owned businesses, One-Town-One-Product Philippines Hub|Ginamâ (OTOP.PH|Ginamâ) was eventually launched to serve as an incubation, market-testing venue for city- and region-based MSMEs. It is run by a female entrepreneur, 90% of members are composed of women entrepreneurs, and it is overseen by both Oro-TIPC and the Misamis Oriental Provincial Office of the DTI. OTOP.PH|Ginamâ is part of the country’s OTOP.PH network, which connects its MSME suppliers with OTOP.PH hubs all over the Philippines.

Beginning in December 2019, a number of business continuity planning (BCP) workshops for MSMEs were held, many of which were led by women. The first group of participants submitted their business continuity plans within the first quarter of 2020. They were invited to an Export and Digital Marketing Seminar co-organized with USAID and the United Parcel Service (UPS).

Partnership with USAID

The Oro-TIPC also serves as the city’s clearinghouse for official development assistance. The center works closely with USAID in achieving the common goal of balanced, inclusive, and resilient economic growth for Cagayan de Oro City.

The center and USAID work together in serving as the city’s EODB (ease of doing business) watchdogs, jointly championing and supporting automation for business permits and licensing earlier on, and more recently for building permitting. Oro-TIPC and USAID are also partners in the Technical Working Group (TWG) for Area Response and Recovery Planning (ARRP), which is now engaged in risk assessment and scenario planning with academic partner Xavier University Ateneo de Cagayan, using the university’s Geospatial Risk Database for Decision Support System (GRiD-DSS).

The local government of Cagayan de Oro City has consistently allotted manpower and resources for the economic empowerment of its citizens, particularly the sector with the least financial capacity. Acknowledging the sustainability of equipping its constituents with the needed capability and skills, the city has a long history of organizing citizens into cooperatives at the barangay (or village) level and providing them with the training and resources to take a proactive part in generating or augmenting their respective and collective incomes.

This is done in collaboration with the country’s Technical Skills and Development Authority (TESDA), and Cagayan de Oro’s City Agriculture and City Veterinary Offices, opening avenues in learning marketable skills, vegetable gardening for household consumption and small-scale commerce, and livestock raising.

The approach has since expanded to entrepreneurship coaching and grooming with the City Social Welfare and Development Office (CSWDO), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and the Oro-TIPC, evolving into a whole-of-government approach toward economic empowerment, similar to what the U.S. government is working to achieve under the W-GDP.

The local government encourages the participation of women in programs, which has resulted in their leadership in charting the course for many of the city’s offspring ventures. The city, together with its partners, slowly began shifting its attention to clear and present economic drivers, which collectively already constitute more than 90% of registered businesses: MSMEs mostly led by women.

In January 2020, USAID led a focus group discussion on women entrepreneurial development with officials from the local government, including DTI Region 10, Philippine Exporters Confederation Inc. (PHILEXPORT), officials of the Department of Science and Technology, and the Cagayan de Oro Trade and Investment Promotion Office, as part of its W-GDP work. Presidents and key officials of women enterprises and business groups such as the Oro Chamber of Commerce, Mindanao Mountaineering Federation, Ginamâ One Town-One Product Hub, Multi-fiber Organization, Food Producers Association of Northern Mindanao (FOPANORMIN), and Health and Wellness also joined the FGD. The objectives of the focus group were to identify the capacity development needs of women entrepreneurs to successfully participate in international and domestic trade, and to determine the needed business support services of women entrepreneurs.

Various means of technical assistance were provided, including an export audit to determine capabilities; technical assistance in certifications, such as Food and Drug Administration certification, Halal certification of fresh and processed foods, fair trade, and others; capacity building for non-food production (e.g., handicrafts); development of local tourism; and collaboration with government and private sectors.

With USAID, a traditional craft group was also organized in early 2020, serving an immediate need of the pottery subsector. The Bulua Traditional Pottery Arts and Crafts was formed with 45 members led by women. One member company of the group is already regularly exporting their pottery products abroad.

Learning to Adapt During the Pandemic

The majority of the female-led MSMEs in Cagayan de Oro found it difficult to remain in business during the COVID-19 pandemic. Community quarantines limited the opening of businesses and the mobility of employees and clients alike, resulting in drastically reduced sales.

Many found it challenging to source materials and distribute their products with distributors shutting down, plus the rising costs and restrictions on logistics. Add to that fewer customers and competition from home-based startups, lack of credit access, and evolving government-imposed guidelines.

With the easing of restrictions under the city’s current Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ), MSMEs have started to reopen, turning to takeout and delivery services to ring in sales. Women-led MSMEs have had to adapt, learning digital marketing and transitioning to cashless transactions.

The onset of the pandemic necessitated a shift in gears, with the sessions reformatted to cover rapid impact assessment and migrating to non-face-to-face platforms, such as teleconferencing and even social media chat groups. Oro-TIPC had to resort to the latter since many of the stakeholders’ internet access and devices could not support online meetings.

Women entrepreneurs are now engaged in group chat-facilitated and online meeting-enabled consultations with fellow MSMEs, public and private partners, retailers, malls, restaurants, and hotel operators. This has become a venue for dialogue, consultations, coaching, sharing and giving feedback on evolving quarantine guidelines, as well as re-skilling and re-tooling to cope with the demands of the new normal.

The Shift to Digital Marketing

Women entrepreneurs are also provided with online training on business continuity planning, digital marketing, and cashless transactions through the partnership of ORO-TIPC, USAID, and DTI. USAID has been helping ORO-TIPC and DTI mentor over 200 MSMEs on how to upgrade and survive in the new normal through group chat consultations and webinars on:

• Screening and applying for financial relief assistance from government agencies and financial institutions.

• e-Commerce and digital marketing.

• Guidelines for operating in quarantine conditions and the new normal.

However, like any other shift to a new way of doing things, challenges arise in introducing online platforms to the participants. The major stumbling blocks include:

• Entering into an entrepreneurial mindset and putting that knowledge into action.

• Stepping into the relatively unfamiliar territory of digital marketing.

• Adopting third-party delivery services and cashless transactions that do not provide as much control as face-to-face transactions.

• Establishing trust with clients relative to the faceless and paperless manner in which technology-facilitated business is conducted.

With continuous collaboration and support, best practices still arise from this unfamiliar situation. The group of MSMEs, together with ORO-TIPC and other partners, created several group chats where they can communicate regularly on issues about business, health, and other related concerns, and even air complaints on facilities and establishments not following protocols. The group chat-facilitated value chain analysis was originally put in place since many of the MSME respondents did not have stable internet access. The group chat members are grouped according to their subsector. In total, there are 11 subsectors: health and beauty, tourism, food and beverage, processed meat, hotels and restaurants, multi-fiber, pottery, cacao and coffee, information and communications technology, processed food, and cashews and peanuts. With the spread of the pandemic and resulting quarantine, the group chats have been reformatted for rapid impact assessment and instant feedback and information dissemination. In fact, the group chats were used by DTI to advise clients on packaging their applications for financial relief assistance.

Suppliers to OTOP.PH|Ginamâ were also not able to immediately shift to e-commerce websites and online marketing as individual MSMEs. While this is still the goal, cashless transactions were already encouraged through enrollment to digital apps like GCash or Pay Maya, where QR codes may be scanned through their phones. Payment from OTOP.PH|Ginamâ to suppliers will now be through these platforms.

While waiting for the launch of its e-commerce website next year, the hub also refurbished its Facebook page with product profiles and helpful posts. This way, enterprise suppliers are acclimatized to the environment of cashless transactions even before a complete e-commerce site becomes available.

Moving Forward

More activities are planned to further foster women entrepreneurship utilizing digital technology. Virtual business-matching and virtual fairs and exhibits for clients, as well as a virtual investment forum, are being planned. Because of the pandemic, every business suddenly needs to be technology-savvy to survive. Oro-TIPC, with the help of its public and private partners, will offer COVID-19 business continuity and recovery planning training in an online format in the next six months and leverage its local leadership in this field to bring in other organizations to help coach micro and small entrepreneurs (MSEs). Budgets for 2021 are currently being crafted to include coaching MSEs in BCP under the new normal, including finding new revenue streams and marketing channels.

The center will need guidance on maintaining business-enabling conditions, as well as facilitating ease of doing business in the new normal. It is eyeing more ways to facilitate online transactions using credit cards and online payment systems like GCash and PayMaya. PayMaya is also planning to set up an ATM machine where both buyers and entrepreneurs can conduct transactions.

As the Cagayan de Oro local government unit completes its Area Response and Recovery Plan with the help of USAID, the directions for each affected sub-sector assessed will be clearer. Coaching on access to financial and other firm-level assistance will be costly and while local coaches may be trained to do this, an external stimulus package that includes funds to pay coaches and can contribute to boosting the local economy will be welcome.


Economic assistance from the government—including tax breaks, access to credit subsidies, debt relief, and employment subsidy support—is very much anticipated. Women-led MSMEs need help from coaches and mentors that can walk them through loan applications, simplified business continuity planning, and advisory services for reopening that are practical and applicable to them.

The pandemic has impressed upon each and every citizen the importance of supporting their own locality. This renewed focus on uplifting one’s own backyard should be further encouraged by supporting small enterprises with constructive feedback, technical guidance, and commercial patronage. It is noteworthy that women-led MSMEs in Cagayan de Oro are now more motivated in helping one another toward their common goal—business resilience and equity—with the help of committed partners from both the public and private sectors advocating for the same goal.

Economic empowerment and equality for women will only materialize when women entrepreneurs enjoy equal access to the same affordable financing mechanisms that men have access to: equal access to markets, market information, digital technology, and services. Just as W-GDP co-creator and advisor to the president Ivanka Trump has said, “Investing in women is vital for our collective economic prosperity and global stability. When we empower women, communities prosper and countries thrive.”

 EILEEN SAN JUAN is the Local Economic and Investment Promotions Officer (LEIPO), and head of Cagayan de Oro Trade and Investment Promotions Center (Oro-TIPC).


RAELITA LEGASPI is the MSME Specialist of Cagayan de Oro Trade and Investment Promotions Center (Oro-TIPC) who handles MSME development and promotion and assists the WED program.


Endnotes and Resources

1 White & Case and Goldman Sachs. “Legislation, Regulation and Practices Impacting Women’s Access to Financial Inclusion.”



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