Not just for start-ups: Singapore business accelerator helps maids get ideas off the ground back home
SINGAPORE: Every morning, Ms Armi Sampani wakes up at 6am to feed her 400 laying hens. She then carries water in gallon containers from her house in the Philippines to her chicken farm before having breakfast.
This is a far cry from what she envisioned when she wanted to set up an ice cream confectionery in her home town of Iloilo City, but then, COVID-19 happened.
After working in Singapore as a domestic helper for 13 years, Ms Sampani returned to Iloilo City in August 2019 and started her ice cream business in March last year - just as the pandemic hit Southeast Asia.
The demand for cold desserts evaporated amid the coronavirus outbreak, even as countries began lockdowns that shuttered food and beverage outlets, closed borders and restricted movements.
She is still running her ice cream business, but the pandemic prompted her to focus on the poultry farm she set up and selling the eggs.
Ms Sampani is an alumna of AIDHA, an organisation that runs courses, mainly on financial management, for foreign domestic workers and lower-income women in Singapore.
The organisation has a business accelerator programme - a concept associated with start-ups - and Ms Sampani is among 12 women who graduated from it in 2021 as she took classes virtually even after returning to the Philippines.
“I HAVE NO DAY OFF”
In the start-up world, business accelerators help fledgling firms get up to speed by supporting them with resources, capital and advice from mentors. AIDHA aims to do the same, but for domestic helpers who will be returning to their home countries.
The six-month programme includes workshops on advanced business topics, dedicated mentoring and up to S$2,500 in funding for those who are ready to start their businesses - provided they meet milestones that are agreed upon during the programme.
After spending the day running her chicken farm, as well as delivering eggs and ice cream, Ms Sampani spends the night logging her expenses and revenue, and analysing how her business is doing. This is all paperwork that she needs to submit to AIDHA to secure her funding.
On top of this, she does the housework and takes care of her elderly parents, who are part of the reason why she moved back home after more than a decade in Singapore.
“I have no day off. It's from the time I wake up until the time I sleep,” she told CNA in a Zoom interview that was punctuated by the crows of roosters on her farm.
How did an aspiration to sell ice cream turn into a chicken farm business?
Back then, Ms Sampani needed fresh eggs of good quality, but she would sometimes get bad eggs from the market. The former agricultural major in university then decided to get her own hens for eggs.
As COVID-19 stymied her ice cream business, she began expanding the farm and she now plans to increase the number of poultry to 1,000.
“I’M MY OWN BOSS”
When asked if her income has improved from her time working in Singapore, she said: “I'm making more, because, you know what, I'm happy … here I’m my own boss.
“It's really good as you're surrounded by your family that you’re close with.”
When she gets the funds from AIDHA, she will get an industrial ice cream maker that will make it easier to produce the artisanal ice cream she has in mind.
She told CNA she wants to make ice cream that tastes as good as Haagen Daz or Ben & Jerry’s but at a fraction of the cost - as the western brands are too expensive for her community. And she’s already got a brand name - Armi’s ice cream.
Using baking skills that she picked up in Singapore while working for an American family, she is experimenting with local ingredients including avocado, mango, coconut, coffee, as well as chocolate from local cacao. She has also been trying out a new flavour - leche, a Philippine dessert that is made from condensed milk.
Besides COVID-19, there are plenty of other challenges - frequent brownouts (a big problem for a frozen dessert maker), unstable Internet connection and a lack of infrastructure. For example, instead of getting her ingredients from one supermarket or have suppliers deliver them, she may have to go to a few places to source for them herself.
“It's not very efficient. Because you can do one thing or two or three things in one day (here). Unlike in Singapore, you can do six things,” she said.
She delivers her eggs on a bicycle and carries with her small orders of ice cream. “Sometimes I carry on my bicycle five trays on one side and five trays on the other side, so I carry 10 trays to deliver," she added.
Her mentor in the AIDHA accelerator programme, Mr Paolo Adragna, said that Ms Sampani has shown “extreme resilience” by switching from selling the product she had in mind to sell the raw ingredient instead.
“She had the idea of, for the time being, using some of the skills that she had learned from the business accelerator and part of the business as she had already started to expand the range of products that she was selling,” he told CNA in a separate interview.
“That was an excellent idea to keep the business afloat … it's a testament to her resilience and to her strength.”
Her strengths, said Mr Adragna, were her dedication and knowledge of the local market but the accelerator helped her hone her financial and business management skills.
“At the beginning, she was a bit wobbly on the balance sheets ... so that's something we really worked hard at,” he said.
Mr Adragna, a senior developer at financial software firm Fidessa, also shared with Ms Sampani his experience and tips from when his family ran a butcher shop in Viareggio, Italy.
Coincidentally, his sister now manages an artisanal ice cream shop in Italy and it was also easy for him to grasp the whole ice cream-making process when discussing the production with Ms Sampani, he said.
“(My family’s shop) was actually very similar to most of the businesses that these women will end up running … A lot of them open either small shops or small farms. I come from a family of farmers as well,” he said.
Another AIDHA business accelerator graduate, Eli Nur Fadilah, is currently working in Singapore as a domestic helper but her business plan is set for when she returns to Indonesia, possibly when her contract ends next year.
She will join her family trade and sell chicken porridge with gizzard satay for breakfast.
Eli, whose mother and brother are hawkers, wants to bring the familiar taste of her mother’s food to her community in Cilacap, in Indonesia’s Central Java.
It will mean waking up in the wee hours of the morning to simmer the porridge over a charcoal fire for three to four hours, she said.
“Being in the food business is always exciting because whenever we’re tired and hungry, we eat,” she said with enthusiasm.
After the programme, she has a better idea of where to get funding for small businesses in Indonesia, she said. To do that, she first needs a solid business plan, which she has already drawn up.
The mentors at AIDHA quizzed her on all aspects of her business plan, Ms Eli said, from pricing and marketing to the location of her food stall and the competition she will face. This made her do research and prepare much more for the business, she said.
“AIDHA really helps me to know what to do,” she said in an interview conducted in English. “How do I set the price, how do I introduce the product ... everything, so that I will have profit, and reduce the risk of failing.”
The fact that other graduates from AIDHA have gone on to start businesses in their home countries has inspired her, Ms Eli said.
“It is great to be independent and, as a woman, financially independent,” she added.
She will start small, with less than S$500 of capital. But with the business, computer and accounting skills she has learned from the accelerator, she hopes to expand the business in time.
Like Ms Eli, Ms Sampani also has bigger plans once the pandemic is over. Because she has been religiously logging her finances, she knows that her ice cream business has not turned a profit, but she continues to work on marketing it.
“I know that I've been spending too much on ice cream like spend, spend, spend,” she said. “But I really want this ice cream to succeed … I want this to be known in my area, and then expand to the city. And I’m really very ambitious, I want to be known in the Philippines.”