The Peanut Butter Woman

Photo by Tzer Haw
I was visiting a poor village near Manila in the Philippines with Mrs Amelia and Gina.  The village was inhabited by several hundred families, all cramped into small, dilapidated, wooden houses.  The local men were mostly labourers and petty traders while the women took care of household chores or helped their hus­bands in odd jobs.

Mrs Amelia was the head of an organization called Giving Hope, which had com­munity projects in the area, and Gina was one of the social workers.  Giving Hope was conducting health and sanitary education for the people.  After a few years, however, they realized that improving the health and sanitary conditions meant helping people out of poverty first.  To do this, Giving Hope Board of Management started income-generation projects.  They decided to help the poorest of the poor women first.

The decision was received well by all the staff in the organization, but they could not decide on how to go about it.  Mrs Amelia wanted to travel to a Western country to ask several international donor agencies for a large amount of money so that Giving Hope could set up a chicken farm that employed local women and sold the chick­ens in the markets.  But the social workers, like Gina, proposed conducting trainings in small business management so that the women could become self-reliant.  

Mrs Amelia's theory was simple: "These women're poor because they don't have jobs.  All they need is jobs which will provide them with enough money to buy food, clothes and other essentials.  They should be paid slightly more than other farm labourers to give them incentive to work hard in the farm.  We don't want to exploit them, you know."  She explained her plan to me excitedly as we walked around.  Her red high heels thudded against the hard ground, affirming what she said.     

"Ha, we should also give them subsidies to make their lives easier.  When they buy chickens and eggs for their families' meals, they should get a big discount for working in the farm."  Then she tugged at her well-tailored red suit and straightened her back.  She was proud of herself for the idea.     
Hands folded in front of her cotton skirt, Gina walked humbly along side her boss and asked timidly, "Do you think the farm'll make any profit so that it can operate on its own in the future without any outside funding?"  

"Profit?  Of course not.  We're a non-profit organization and we need money for every project we do!  The farm's not a business; it's a means to give employment to these poor people so that they can escape poverty!  We'll need donor's money every year!"  Mrs Amelia laughed.

"The donors may not give money to us for such a large project.  And it takes a long time to get a farm going.  These women could be waiting for a long time."  Avoiding eye contact, Gina spoke haltingly to her boss.  "If we give them some simple training in... how to do a small business, they could start right away... to make a living... we wouldn't have to depend on donors for support."

"They've been poor all this while!  There's no reason why they can't wait till everything's ready!  They can't tell us what to do!  They should be grateful that we're helping them."  Mrs Amelia reprimanded her.  "They don't need the kind of training you say.  This kind of training is for people who have a lot of time.  You should know better than to suggest this, Gina! 

Photo by Tzer Haw
"See, they are busy women."  She pointed at a group of women washing their clothes by the public tap.  "They don't have time for things that can't give them money, food, and clothes!"

"They would make time if we gave them the training they needed!"  Gina said as she turned her face away, avoiding Mrs Amelia's dirty look.  

"How can you say this?  This kind of training will be a waste of project money and staff time.  What they need is just jobs."  Mrs Amelia looked straight into Gina's face and continued, "I have been the head of Giving Hope for ten years and I've gone to university to study social science, do you think I don't know what these people need?"

            Pointing at Gina with her long painted nails, she snorted, "Let me tell you something -- When my husband first started his job with a construction com­pany 20 years ago, he didn't have any money.  Over the years, he got promoted and he has been receiving better and better salaries.  Now, we have a house, a car and we go on holidays overseas.  Do you tell me that the same principles do not apply to these people?"

Gina did not reply.  She pursed her thin lips as if she was trying to choke back something she wanted to say.  Mrs Amelia looked at her and smiled trium­phantly.

We entered a community hall where a group of women were gathered for a health talk for conducted by Giving Hope.  Gina introduced Mrs Amelia and I to all the women who were present and told us about their backgrounds.

One of them was Alise.  Her husband was an odd-job worker and they had eight children, aged one to ten.  Since Alise's husband could not earn enough for the family, Alise sold jars of home-made peanut butter to a grocery shop in a nearby middle-class residential area.

"I think we can teach her how to market her peanut butter better so that she can make more money.  That won't take too much of our time and it doesn't cost the project any money."  Gina said cautiously.

"How?"  Mrs Amelia was clearly annoyed at Gina's insistence.

"She told me that the shopkeeper gives her 12 pesos for each jar of peanut butter that he sells for 25 pesos.  She thinks that she's making a profit of a few pesos per jar.  I think the shopkeeper is paying her too little for her peanut butter.  If we teach her some simple profit-and-loss calculation and how to sell her peanut butter directly to her customers, she can make more money than what she's getting now."

Mrs Amelia stared at Gina for a long time.  She then turned to ask Alise if she would like to sell her peanut butter herself instead of selling them to the shop.

"Naheheyah (shy)!  Not me!  I can't do things like that!"  With one hand covering her mouth, Alise giggled.  She was uneasy about the suggestion.

Mrs Amelia turned to face Gina with a broad smile.  She was amused.  "If you think you can teach her how to sell peanut butter, you can do so after your working hours."

When Gina heard that, her face broke into a happy smile.  "Thank you, Mrs Amelia."  She said as she looked warmly at Alise.

I didn't hear anything from Mrs Amelia about her farm project after that.  Several months later, she invited me to attend a thank you party given by the village to Giving Hope.

The village head and several other villagers gave thank you speeches, bouquets of flowers, and sweet cakes to Mrs Amelia, who represented Giving Hope­.  Alise was one of the villagers who spoke. 

Her speech was fascinating when it was translated to me.  "Last time, I thought I was poor because I was stupid and I didn't have any ability to make money like the rich people.  One day, the staff from Giving Hope told me, "Alise, you must start seeing yourself as a strong and smart woman, then your life'll change.  Do something about your peanut butter and you can make your life dif­ferent."  I didn't really believe them but I followed their suggestions.  After that, they taught me how to cal­culate things, like the cost of the peanuts and jars that I bought.  They showed me how much money I could make if I sold at different prices.  One day, they said, "Now, you must go and sell the peanut butter to the people.  No more selling to the shop."

"I was afraid.  They told me to look at the mirror every day and say, "My peanut butter is the best.  Buy a jar for your family and you won't regret it!"

I said it everyday.  One day, I went to those houses over there.  I saw a woman and I said, "My peanut butter is the best.  Buy a jar for your family and you won't regret it!"   She bought a jar.  After that, many people bought my peanut butter.

"Now they call me Ne-gla-lakoh Nang Peanut Butter (the Peanut Butter Woman)!  My husband has quit his labourer's job and he is helping me in my peanut butter business!  I am very happy and I want to thank Giving Hope for helping me."

The audience broke into applause led by Gina, who sat next to me in the front row.  She beamed at Alise like a proud mother on graduation day.  Alise returned her smile with a reverent nod.  She then turned to Mrs Ameila and presented her with a jar of her peanut butter wrapped beautifully with a red ribbon.  The audience applauded again ad Mrs Amelia stepped up to the podium.

"This is very special", she said, "that one woman has been successful through Giving Hope.  We promise you that we will continue to help all of you prosper like Alise has.  Soon we will have a large chicken farm where all of you can receive jobs..."

I heard Gina release a long, frustrated sigh. 

By Chong Sheau Ching


  1. I love peanut butter and mostly the delicious once were home-made. I have a friend whose mother also do the same business and its worth it.


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