Anya Lim On Social Entrepreneurship In Traditional Communities & Accurately Measuring Impact


ANTHILL is Alternative Nest and Trading/ Training Hub for Indigenous/ Ingenious Little Livelihood seekers, a social and cultural enterprise working on elevating Filipino culture through contemporary and circular design. It supports cultural preservation and sustainable livelihood through community enterprise building among its partner artisan communities. 

Anya Lim is the “Princess Ant” and Co-Founder and Managing Director of ANTHILL Fabric Gallery. She works passionately on weaving culture, tradition and business through community entrepreneurship. With over a decade of experience in the development sector, her immersion began as a volunteer with UNICEF Philippines and the Teresian Missionaries during an Indigenous Summer Mountain Service in Taiwan. She did fundraising and advocacy communications for World Vision Philippines and acted as Interim- Supply Chain Manager for Rags2Riches, a social enterprise in the Philippines working empowering local artisans. Anya finished her Masters in Communications for Social Change at the University of Queensland, Australia last 2013. 

In Australia, Anya further deepened her knowledge on social entrepreneurship and interned at Social Ventures Australia where she worked for two social enterprises working with Aboriginal and refugee groups. Anya worked as Communications Consultant for SEED, a social enterprise in Brisbane employing people experiencing disadvantage and for Bo’s Coffee Philippines, a homegrown coffee chain advocating social procurement. 

Anya is 2011 class of Asia Society Young Leaders,  2013 Spark Philippines-USAID Young Women Entrepreneurship Bootcamp Fellow, 2014 Go Negosyo Young Creative Entrepreneur Awardee, 2016 Young Entrepreneur of Cebu Awardee by the Cebu Chamber of Commerce, 2017 Swedish Institute Management Fellow and a 2018 Young Mansmith Marketers Awardee under the Entrepreneurship Category. Anya is also 2015 Curator of the Global Shapers Cebu Hub, a youth community under the World Economic Forum.


Anya shares key lessons learnt setting up her Phillipines-based social enterprise, whilst also providing advice for those looking to measure impact and International Students looking to get the most out of their study experience.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Steve Williams] - My name’s Steve Williams. I’m the Social Innovation Program Manager at CQUniversity and I’m passionate about all things social innovation and enterprise. Today we’re recording from CQUniversity’s Brisbane campus at one of our Lunch and Learn sessions.

I’d like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on where we are meeting. In the spirit of reconciliation, CQUniversity recognises that it’s meeting on country on which the Turrbal and Jagera people are traditional custodians. I pay my respect to the elders past, present and future, for they hold the memories, traditions, culture and hopes for Indigenous Australians.

Anya, Thanks very much for joining us.

[Anya Lim] - Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

So, tell us why you are here in Brisbane.

I've been very fortunate to be among 15 women who will be participating in an intensive short course on women trading globally. So there's two Filipinas representing the Philippines and it’s a program concentrated for South East Asia and it's sponsored by the Export Council Australia, Australian Awards, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Great, so tell us a little bit, before we unpack ANTHILL, tell us about your expansion plans.

Right, so this program is actually very timely as ANTHILL is also working on putting our Filipino textiles on the global map and we're working on expanding our reach and distribution. And so, I'm really interested to learn more on how we can tap the international markets through this program.

So, tell us about ANTHILL. What is the core problem the enterprise seeks to address?

As you mentioned, ANTHILL is based in Cebu, Philippines. We're not in the capital, and it stands for a very long acronym which means Alternative Nest and Trading or Training Hub for Indigenous or Ingenious Little Livelihood seekers, very long! So, we are a social and cultural enterprise that works primarily on addressing cultural degradation as an issue, particularly the death of weaving as a living tradition and also the lack of employment opportunities in the country side.

The way we address this is by applying our weaves into contemporary and circular design in order to create market demand and provide sustainable livelihood for our partner communities. So as an example, what I'm wearing today is actually hand-woven by one of our enterprise partners. It's an Indigenous tribe called Abra and the pattern is very symbolic, it is said to drive away bad spirits; if you look at the Binakol pattern it has an optical illusion to it and they say it has a dizzying effect to bad energy. Not that there's bad energy here, but I'm wearing it today for that. That's basically what ANTHILL is in a nutshell.


I know the podcast listeners can't see this right but I also sporting an ANTHILL scarf which I’ve had for many years so it also has longevity so its not just a flash in the pan fashion.


So tell us a bit more about your background. How did you go down the path of social enterprise? What led you to that place?

A lot of things, a lot of life experiences connected the dots to lead me to social entrepreneurship. I think it really all started because apart from growing up in a family business, both my parents are also entrepreneurs. But more than that, they have such huge love for country and culture and that really was inculcated in the way we were as raised children. So I always tell this story; summers were spent immersing ourselves in traveling to different Indigenous tribes in the Philippines, and there was this one particular summer where my mum took us to visit an Indigenous tribe and it was in the up-lands of northern Philippines. And to me, since I grew up listening and hearing about these stories as if they were characters in my story book, or my version of Disney princesses, when we went to the community, it just made me feel so alive to witness everything in that story come to life.

I would always say it was like Disneyland for me. I witnessed a culture of a village thriving with women weaving and them celebrating their culture, and men carving and just a very communal spirit and such positive energy among the community. So after a very significant experience after I finished uni, my brother and I decided to go back and visit the same village. And then sadly it became a total ghost town and no one was there; it was like literally dead, gone. And so we were intrigued. We asked around the neighbouring villages, whatever happened to that particular village and they said everyone decided to become tour guides. It was very close to a UNESCO heritage site, the rice terraces. So they decided to pursue an easier, accessible source of income.

That was really very disheartening. You know, I would always consider that like a social awakening that a problem does exist. And I considered it my first social pain, to witness first hand the death of a culture that to me was very personal, because it was what my childhood was all about. I was very fascinated by all of these, not just characters, but they were Filipinos. They were the first Filipinos. From then on it made me very curious to learn more about why there was no compelling force for young women or the younger generation to pursue celebrating their culture. I travelled for a year around the Philippines, and in every Indigenous village that we visited, it was exactly the same problem. They were left with only elder weavers weaving and there was a gap in cultural transmission and the continuity, not just in living traditions, but in every aspect of their culture and heritage.

There was a poverty of identity, I would say among the younger generation because of a lot of colonial influence.

But looking on the other spectrum, the reason why a lot of young women did not want to learn the craft, aside from it being very difficult to learn, was also because it didn’t put food on the table, there was not enough market demand. Sadly then, about 10 years ago, Filipinos deemed or perceived for it to be uncool to wear handwoven fabrics because they were already used as place mats, table runners, bed covers and curtains and whatnot for home upholstery. And so, women would think, ‘why would I weave something that has no demand in the market,’ and also as a consumer, as a customer, ‘why would I wear a place mat?’ So they just found it so uncool to do that.

We wanted to address that gap, we wanted to find solutions on how we could bring that back. Historically, our ancestors consider this as a heart woven cloth and they consider it their second skin. And I think that's so beautiful that what they wear equates to their identity. And so why is it that, in this generation we don't wear it with pride. And I thought that was very sad.

Just going back a little bit, tell us about your experiences in India and how that influenced your journey of social entrepreneurship.

Since my mum also runs a textile business, we would go to India and source fabrics there as well. And I was really very drawn to Gandhi. And when I visited the Gandhi Museum and the Gandhi house, I learned more about the Khadi movement or the movement of hand woven cloth.

And it was such a very  influential experience,

a very significant experience to me because I learned about how Gandhi used the charkha or the loom as a pathway to peace, as a tool to make people in the rural communities become empowered and a tool be self reliant and to become self employed.

So in that manner, that influenced me a lot when I thought about our business model. How can we make the weavers in the rural communities and the upland communities, in the far flung areas, realise that there's so much resources and potential already where they are at. They don't have to migrate and seek greener pastures in the urban communities. They just have to value what was the once under valued, which is their craft and tradition.

I love that story. And, so you've told us a little bit about the problem and that inkling of a solution, so how you can bring a business focus to help solve some of those problems for those weavers and traditional villages? Tell us a little about your business model and how you've actually addressed it and when you've gone over the last five years.

The way we work is we are an ecosystem business model and we have five major stakeholders working on reviving the weaving industry in the Phillipines which is our mission.

We have a very important requirement, our Community Enterprise Development Program, second, we have our textile partners and here our interaction is really sourcing materials from them. These are more established, non-profits, cooperatives and associations. And we also influence their product design and innovation. And then third, of course, ANTHILL isn't an expert on design, and so we love collaborating, we work with a lot of design collaborators that help us elevate the value of our weaves and turn them into things that are so creative and innovative. And then fourth, we also work with a lot of production partners, so these are seamstresses, tailors, shoemakers, bag makers and which is also sadly like a dying industry in the Philippines.

And we're trying to also help revive that. And then finally, our customers are what we call our Proud Weave Wearers. So, all of these stakeholders make up our ecosystem model. And it's really imperative that we have a solid foundation and we all work together in achieving our goal. We have four different revenue channels. We work with a lot of business to business transactions. Business to consumer transaction, so that's corporate, retail. And then recently launched our e-commerce platform, so that's another, marketing or revenue channel. And then we do a lot of pop ups and events locally and internationally as well. So that's basically it. The way we sort of grew the business is in the first few years for I'd say first five years, we invested so much in really building the capacity of our community partners.

We were very hesitant or fearful of going out there in the market unprepared. So we had to invest in a lot of community development and community organising.

And that was to where we run the program. The program has five courses and this is also an extra level of intervention in the community. First, cultural appreciation; I think that's our way of doing values formation in the community and really deepening the sense of purpose of why they weave and understanding what's the relationship of weaving in their personal lives and their culture and their tradition and their identity. And then we go up and level up into influencing them and their product design and innovation. And this is also how we build or establish trust in the community. So, all of the patterns are Indigenous to them and we have to seek out their permission, are they open to exploring other colours that are not traditional? We have to make sure that it's not disrespectful to their culture, and so from there, we influence them and say these are the colours of the season. Are you open to weaving the pastel colours, or neon colours and it's pretty interesting and fascinating. So, we would show them the colour wheel and just very tiny interventions, right, and in the past they only know the basic colours, red, blue, green, yellow. And then once we show them different colour swatches and all Pantone colours. Now this time around when we asked for an order and we asked for say a blue, they would know the range of blues and they’d ask, do you want a teal blue and navy blue a sky blue; so little innovations but really to them, it's so empowering to have that knowledge.

Could you say something about the impact that you talked about; how do you measure impact? We've just learnt about how people are actually earning money now because they're selling to you or by you and they're starting to innovate in terms of colour choice or material choice. What about in a material sense, for the people that you are purchasing from, the weavers themselves, what is the impact that's been created?

With our business model, 80% percent of our profits are actually reinvested back into the program, because the program is the anchor of what makes us grow. I think it just makes sense that we are invested in the production capacity and in the wellbeing of the weavers. Just to put it in context, before ANTHILL’s partnership, an average weaver would earn about 3,000 Pesos on a monthly basis. Because of our partnership, we have grown their income to about 10,000 Pesos on a monthly basis.

That's like more than 50% of income growth. And now, because we have a financial literacy and savings program and we work with a micro-finance partner, they also have access to loans and insurance. And interestingly, because they've already acquired an entrepreneurial mindset, most of the investments or the loans that the weavers applied for are really to pursue other businesses, other enterprises. So just to give an example, a weaver in Abra, one of the communities that we work with, that weaves this fabric [Anya’s jacket], invested and applied for a loan so that she can grow her poultry business. So she raises pigs and goats, and they use the milk and they use everything else. One of the doll makers in Cebu applied for a loan to buy an oven so she can bake at the same time as she makes the dolls. In that sense, they're able to have a bigger vision of how they can use and maximise their income and not just live for the day.


I've heard you speak before about unintended consequences of your actions. Would you like to say something about when you grew the business and you scaled into Manila, but then there was some unintended consequences for the weavers? That's a really interesting story.

In social entrepreneurship, of course profit is very important. We are for-profit, and that's one of the ways we can be sustainable.

Scaling up is a big external pressure, and the demand for weaves was in the capital Manila. So when we were able to have an opportunity to expand our distribution there, we were really happy about it and we asked the weavers to work double time so we could increase our inventory.

But then with this in mind, we thought, ‘this is going to be good. We're going to increase their income, we're going to increase the number of weaves and this is going to open more opportunities, and more membership will come into the community enterprise.’

So come year end, we were back in the community and we did an assessment and we were so excited to do a rundown of the level of income and how much their income went up and how much their savings went up.

They were really happy. But, then one mother raised her hand and said, “you know, we're really happy about all of these improvements and all these developments and how we're expanding the market and we’re growing our production. But I think you're forgetting that before we are weavers, we are mothers first”.

I was telling you, to me that was really such a humbling line and I consider that was one of our very first failures to listen and to acknowledge our stakeholder and what for them is the definition of success.

We were defining success in our own terms, forgetting that what is successful to us, may not be successful to them.

We were limiting our metrics in terms of numbers and the way other people, our other stakeholders expect it to be, but we forgot the very reason why we started ANTHILL in the first place. So from then on, it was around 2015, it was game changing. It changed the way we make the decisions and now that experience really anchored us back into our values. And now every time we make business decisions that involves impact or scaling, we always go back to that client. Our weavers are mothers first. And what's more important for us besides profit or margins, is how we can create an enabling platform that can make our weavers become better mothers.

Thank you, that’s a fantastic story. Just to change tack a little bit, when we first met in 2012, you were an international student doing a Masters in Communication for Social Change. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience of being an international student in Australia?

So Australia, and my experience here has a lot of significance in the work I do back home. I think as an international student, you come here, and it has to be very intentional as to why you're here, considering you only have so little time to study here. So, when I came to Australia, I really had the intention to learn and really immerse myself in different organisations and institutions where I can be in best practices and bring it back home. My course was in the social sciences, but towards the end of the program I really wanted to take on a course in social entrepreneurship and social innovation. So even if it wasn't allowed as an elective to cross enrol to another school, I actually took the initiative to write to the Dean and request if I can take an elective in another school just because I wanted to network in the social enterprise sector here in Australia.

It's very important to have an intention or that sense of purpose as to what you're really here for and also have initiative to immerse yourself in other circles. One of the things that I also did was I tried to move away from my comfort zone, and there's so many Filipinos here, they're a very active community and I love hanging out with them; but during the week I'd spend more time with my classmates from different countries, and Australia is very diverse and there's just so much to learn from different cultures and different professions. So I did that a lot and I attended different events and talks like this, (Lunch and Learn) learning sessions like this. One of the talks that I attended, Susan Black, who was then the director of Social Ventures Australia (Queensland), was the speaker, and I was very drawn to what they do.

I took the initiative to email her. I wrote a lot of cold emails just wanting to have coffee with people that I think I could learn from. I emailed her and I asked if I could intern with them and they actually didn't have an existing internship program then. I was probably the first and the last intern, and that's how I met you. So SEED, and an Aboriginal Indigenous youth academy was then one of their (SVA’s) clients, and I worked with Steve and also at that time I was seeking a lot of mentors and you Steve became one of my very good mentors. Just immersing with different social enterprises really made me apply what I learned in school, so it became my creative laboratory and from then on I was able to test ideas out in Australia and see how it will also work back home if I contextualise it there. That was really fascinating because I feel like, okay, I had my own laboratory here and then I could explore it back home.


That's fantastic, I should say, I learned as much, if not way more from you than I’m sure you did from me. There’s a really nice example of when you worked at SEED; so Anya did an internship at SEED, but then we realised the amazing person she is, so we ended up employing her for some communications work. SEED is a social enterprise in northern Brisbane that works with employed people from disadvantaged backgrounds as landscape maintenance gardeners and commercial cleaners, and Anya devised this amazing communications campaign which maybe you could spend a minute talking about?

It was a growing seeds of change campaign. So we really wanted to engage the different members (workers) to own their own voice and tell their story. And so since the work was in landscaping and gardening, we had a photo campaign where they would just show their hands and hold up the logo and have a like a plaque card that says I'm “Growing the SEED of …blank”. So just really honouring the value of the voice of each and every member in that community. And I'm happy that Steve mentioned that up until now that the campaign and those materials are still up and running.

We ran it not just to staff, but also to community members, to MPs and everybody; there was this amazing kind of photo journalism piece where people would hold up these chalkboards about “Growing the SEED of….” whatever it might be, inclusivity or employment or love, you know, it's just a really beautiful thing. And then we had a great launch.

Yeah, we had a launch, we had a photo exhibit and people were very proud and happy to see their photos up there talking about how they're contributing to the social impact.

To wrap up, would you have any advice for any of our listeners on this podcast or any of our students here at the university who are interested in starting a social enterprise, but they just don't know how to start or where to start? What would your advice be?

Starting is always a tough one. I always say that you'll never be ready until you're there. There’s really no sense of preparedness. I think no matter how much you prepare for it, no matter how many business plans you write or draft, the only way to start is to just do it. Just jump in there and take the leap and take the risks.

But I think what's also very important is that, (and this is so cliche, but it still is I think very foundational) is for you to really be able to understand why are you doing what you do.

That deep sense of purpose for any enterprise, no matter social or not. It’s so important that you're able to clearly identify what the social issue or market need or market demand is that you’re addressing. identify that gap.

There has to be a clarity of purpose because if it's not clear to you what you're trying to solve, then it will be very difficult for you to come up with solutions. Also I think it's also very important that once you're there that you honour your place, because there's going to be a lot of external pressures.

It's very important to get feedback but also have to be very critical about the feedback that you get.

You listen, but you also have to take into consideration what is relevant for you at this moment, you have to show empathy to yourself, not just to others, or to the business that you want to create, but see how many resources, how much competency you have, how much readiness you have to take this on, given whatever circumstance; and it's okay to take it slow.

I actually studied my Masters in between running the social enterprise and it was okay because I learned and I gained so much from it too. It's also I think very important that you acquire a sense of balance. I was sharing with Steve earlier that in the past I was so hard on myself being an entrepreneur that my mindset was it has to be work, it has to be financially sustainable. When, after that story about the mother weavers emphasising their values again, it made me shift my perspective on social entrepreneurship and in what I do.

So now I look at it as my creative playground, as an outlet where I can unleash my creativity, because it's a kind of work that gives energy back to me; it makes me feel alive. From that sort of perspective and change of mindset, it doesn't feel like work. if it's more of a flow, it's a natural flow of things and usually when their energy is within the right thing, everything else follows, right? Impact follows, profit follows, all the checkboxes in your criteria follows.

I think that's just important then that in every decision that you make, in every step that you make, it's always going to be a leap of faith. But it's still very important that you are very intentional and aware of everything, not just of who you work with and what you're working on, but also yourself and your limitations.

That's such a great point to wrap up the conversation. Anya, thanks so much for your time today and thanks to CQUniversity for hosting and to Impact Boom for making this conversation available as a podcast.


You can contact Anya on LinkedIn or Facebook. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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