By Kingkan Triyong
LA TRINIDAD, BENGUET, PHILIPPINES – Their profits are several zeroes short of what the big telecommunications companies are raking in, but there are still smiles all around among the flower growers of Benguet, up in the mountainous Philippine north. Business has never been better, after all, and for the last several years, it’s been largely because of something called “short message service” or SMS, better known as “texting” among Filipinos.
A service offered by cell-phone companies, texting has become the rage in the Philippines, which is now known as the texting capital of the world. Industry estimates place the total number of text messages sent by Filipinos per day at more than 100 million, and while much of that are personal messages, business transactions are being done through text as well – and benefiting a rising number of small-time entrepreneurs across the Philippines.
Just ask flower grower Modesto Pulas, who specializes in roses. Just a few years ago, he and the other flower growers here used to spend as much as P50 (almost $1, a sizable amount in these parts) each to travel by public jeep from their village to the town center and back. It was at the town center where they made phone calls to see if there were any orders for their flowers, and they usually had to do it three times a week. The trips were necessary because their village, despite being a major flower source for buyers in Manila, had no landline phone service. Sometimes, they also could not start cultivating flowers until an agent traveled to the village to place orders personally.
Up to now, Pulas’s village still has no landline service. But Pulas and his neighbors no longer have to make the bumpy 30-minute ride to town, and the P50 they used to spend for each trip can now go to something else, such as more food on their tables or more seeds to grow more flowers. That’s because many of them now have mobile phones, which they use to receive orders from the dealers, who only have to spend P1 (about two cents) per text message.
“Texting helps us a lot in doing business,” says Pulas. “No wasting of time waiting for orders.” Even urgent orders are handled with relative ease, since they reach the growers almost as soon as it is sent. The growers can start working on them right away, too, and if they are not able to meet all the dealer’s requirements, they can just text a colleague to supply the missing amount.
Growers also text each other whenever they need a helping hand, especially in the busy months of February and November, when demand for flowers is high because of Valentine’s Day and All Saints’ Day. Pulas says that since his family consists of only two members, he sometimes sends a text to his neighbor to help him cultivate his roses. And when he is not too busy, he also sends a text offering help to other growers.
SMS delivers them fresh
Indeed, technology has finally brought a bit of power to people at the grassroots level. In Tanay, Rizal, about two hours away from Metro Manila by car, doing business by text has become popular as well among small-time fishers.
“Today we can complete all transactions easily by sending SMS to consignees at the fish port,” says Bonifacio Federizo, head of the Samahan ng mga Mangingisda ng Tanay (Tanay Fishers’ Cooperative). “All the information – types of fish, volume, prices, etc. – can be sent via SMS and (the dealers are happy) to get the fresh products.”
Like the flower growers of La Trinidad, the Tanay fishers have cut down their transportation expenses because of texting. Unlike before when they had to personally check the market prices before they could sell their catch for the day, the fishers now get information about current prices via text. They also no longer have to bring their catch all the way to where the dealers or consignees are. A buyer can be found with just a few punches on the keypad, and if the volume is big enough, the buyer even comes to the fisher.
SMS has also become an inexpensive and quick way for the fishers’ cooperative to inform members about a meeting. Someday, says Federizo, they may even figure out how they can use text to strengthen their bargaining power as a group.
That may sound unlikely right now, but just a decade ago, it also seemed unlikely that someone like Federizo would own a cell phone and even use it for business. Back then, mobile phones were priced out of the reach of simple folk; the hefty monthly service fee also ensured that only those who were well-off would even consider owning a cell phone.
Cheaper and cheaper
Then telecommunications companies came up with affordable pre-paid cell phone cards that meant there would be no fixed monthly fees for those who bought them. Various cell phone manufacturers also began introducing a wide range of models with an equally wide range of prices. These days, older models can be bought for as little as P1,000 ($18), while the fierce competition between cell-phone-service providers has kept voice-call fees relatively low (at an average of P8 or about 14 cents). Centavo-pinching Filipinos, however, prefer to use the much cheaper text, especially since some pre-paid cards and practically all post-paid plans also offer a certain amount of free text messages.
Today just owning a cell phone can itself be a business. In many poor communities, some enterprising cell-phone owners offer to send text messages at a mark-up or rent it out for a minimal fee to those who opt to buy just a SIM card, which is the chip that connects the phone to a cell-phone-service provider’s network. In addition, cell-phone-owners-turned-entrepreneurs can become franchisees for the e-load service, which enables pre-paid users to buy “loads” for low as P10 (about 20 cents) just by giving their number to the e-load seller.
Cell phones – and texting especially – have become so popular that many Filipinos no longer bother to get a landline. By the end of 2004, the number of mobile phone owners in the Philippines was expected to hit 30 million, reaching around 36 percent of the population. This has left the country’s biggest phone company scrambling to lure customers, at one point even introducing a service that would enable a user to send SMS through a landline.
Wishing for WAP
But the phone company still isn’t interested in setting up a landline service up in the remote villages of La Trinidad, because it apparently considers the communities there far too small for it to profit significantly.
“We have been making requests (to the company),” says Francesca Rivera, who grows Malaysian mums. “We have (personal computers) but we have no Internet due to the lack of landlines.”
Theoretically, they can still upload and download information from websites if they had a cell phones that are at least WAP-enabled. Such phones, however, cost almost 10 times more than the ordinary units, making them unaffordable to people like Rivera, Pulas, and Federizo.
Still, a WAP (wireless application protocol) phone may be a worthy investment for a cooperative. A Filipino site called B2Bpricenow.com, for instance, allows farmers or producers to upload information regarding their products either via the Internet or by mobile phone while buyers can post their requirements online through the same methods. The site also enables farmers to monitor the prices the prices of goods without having to leave home.
For now though, the flower growers of La Trinidad and the fishers of Tanay are contenting themselves with whatever benefits their regular cell phones are giving them. At the very least, getting orders is no longer an ordeal, and even suddenly running short of supplies or having an emergency while out on sea is no longer a cause for panic. Help is just a text message away.