This trade fair celebrates the transformative power of women entrepreneurs

About 90% of the member enterprises of the Association of Negros Producers (ANP) are run or fronted by women.

A great philosopher once asked, “Who runs the world?” And most of the world answered, “Girls!”

We’re kidding about the philosopher. That was actually Beyonce in her 2011 single Run the World (Girls). But what she says, or sings, is true. And it’s not just the typically “girly” worlds of fashion, food, homemaking, and crafts that girls are running. They’re also calling the shots in the world of business.

The hacienderas who had lost everything in the collapse of the sugar industry led the charge and began the transformation of the Negros business landscape into the women-powered industry it is today. 

In Negros Occidental, there’s practically an entire empire of enterprises run by girls. By girls, of course, we don’t mean the little ones that play Barbie: we mean the Margot Robbie set. Ladies. Women. Barbies in the real world.

In fact, about 90 percent of the member enterprises of the Association of Negros Producers (ANP), a non-stock, non-profit, non-political organization composed of professionals and entrepreneurs with roots in the Visayan province, are run or fronted by women. Mothers, housewives, educators, artists, marketers, designers, culinary experts, social advocates, and so on. 

Wives of farmers from the haciendas and mountains of Negros find their own livelihood and empowerment as weavers and craftswomen of Hacienda Crafts.

“Women leaders have always stood out here,” says the association’s chairperson Christina Gaston. “Women here are very empowered.”

The association is the moving force behind the Negros Trade Fair, the longest-running exhibition in the country of region-based small businesses. This year’s edition, which is ongoing  at the Glorietta Activity Center until Sunday, October 1, will be the 37th. It would’ve been the 38th if not for the pandemic lockdown in 2020.

For the uninitiated, the Negros Trade Fair is a bazaar. There are hundreds of merchant booths (over 100 to be exact this year) selling all sorts of products—clothes, food, decor, crafts, furniture, artworks, knickknacks, trinkets. You want thingamabobs? It’s got plenty!

The women of Negros Trade Fair

Christina Gaston, chairperson of the Association of Negros Producers. She is also President of Hacienda Crafts.

But it’s not just a bazaar. Sure, people go to shop: they buy and then leave. That’s not the entire story, though. 

“It’s actually a platform for progress,” notes Gaston,  who heads association member enterprise Hacienda Crafts. “We use it as a learning tool, a networking tool, a marketing tool, a way to communicate what we’ve been doing here.”

By here she means Negros. And by doing she means the constant trainings the association gives to its members, the non-stop push for product development and innovation, and the relentless pursuit for excellence in all aspects of business.

This continuous stream of activities all-year-long has led to the creation of unique merchandise year after year. For 2023, these include the refreshing Tomato Mansi Cocktail (a non-alcoholic mix of tomato and calamansi juices), the once-you-pop-you-can’t-stop Sarisa Chips (aratilis leaves with a thin coat of flavored batter and deep fried to a perfect state of munchiness), and the chewylicious Kamias Chocolate (pili nuts paste wrapped in candied kamias prunes, dipped in brown chocolate and laced with white chocolate). 

Returning one-of-a-kind favorites from previous years include earrings, necklaces, and ornaments made with upcycled Nespresso capsules; tableware made from cogon and pandan leaves; different variants of piaya (chorizo, calamansi, passion fruit, muscovado, peanuts); green veggie noodles and black squid noodles; and, all sorts of cranberry products (juice, prunes, concentrate, marmalade).

Most of these were created and are crafted by women: the cranberries by a sixtysomething grandma; the aratilis chips by a millennial teacher at De La Salle Bacolod; the coffee pod accessories by craftswomen from poor families; the tableware by female weavers (wives of farmers) from the farmlands and mountains of Negros; the tomatomansi drink by a thirtysomething housewife.

“This has been transformative over the years,” Gaston intones about how the Negros Trade Fair both lives off of and feeds into the power of women in Negros. The Association itself has been helmed, except for one two-year term, by women leaders.

From crisis to opportunity

Artwork by Raymond Legaspi for the cover of the Negros Trade Fair 25th anniversary coffee table book.

It’s a four-decade-old story ironically born from the economic crisis and the crash of the Negros sugar industry in the early 1980s. When the farmers and plantation workers lost their jobs, the women found themselves having to step up, be creative, and help out in making a living for their families. “They had to leave the comfort of their homes,” Gaston notes. “There was no question about it.”

Even the well-heeled set, including hacienderas, was not spared. In fact, they led the charge and began the transformation of the Negros business landscape into the women-powered industry it is today. 

The 25th anniversary book of the Negros Trade Fair tells the story of its beginnings: “In 1984, a group of 14 women attended a seminar by the Department of Trade and Industry to learn new skills, craft new wares, and learn the rudiments of possible export, so that they may teach these to the wives and mothers of impoverished families and, hopefully, open new avenues of trade for them.” 

The Negrense women, once with their hair coiffed perfectly and served by personal staff for every little need, became merchants who braved the car park’s soot and dust.

That seminar eventually led to the very first Negros Trade Fair a year later. Held at the Makati Car Park, where the new One Ayala Terminal now stands, the tiangge showcased the initial products from the seminars as well as output from the kitchens of old Negrense homes.  

It was a sight to behold, the book notes. “The Negrense women, once with their hair coiffed perfectly and served by personal staff for every little need, became merchants who braved the car park’s soot and dust. With their hands, they carried the goods from storage areas to the selling tables, and served their clients’ needs with excellent customer service manners, be it painstakingly scouring through cartons for the item with the right color, to smiling patiently even when the customers were ever-demanding.”

Coming from that generation of genteel living, Gaston says, the women of Negros were very much in charge especially making sure that everything was in order, everything was prepared, everything was up to a certain standard, everything was hosted properly. And you know that’s an objective assessment from an outsider looking in, Gaston being a Cebuana who married into the landed Negrense family who owns the iconic Bacolod mansion seen in the classic Filipino film Oro, Plata, Mata.

It’s a culture that lives on to this very day, which is why the theme for this year’s fair, Amuma, is one that’s been decades in the making. It’s a deep Hiligaynon term that means “to foster, to nurture, to take care of.”

Almost 40 years in, this empire of empowered Negrense women is stronger than ever. Almost 40 years in, who runs the world? Girls!

The new lifestyle.