Sea change

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 January, 2012, 12:00am


One man's desire to make a difference to the lives of the poor has changed a fishing village in the Philippines forever. He is Jonah Nobleza, founder of Marina Gana Vida, and winner of the 2012 Make a Difference (MaD) grand award.

Nobleza, 35, graduated from the University of the Philippines - Diliman with a degree in molecular biology. After working in a laboratory and teaching for a few years, he felt the need to do something different with his life.

In 2003, he went to work for the Strategic Development Cooperation Asia (SDCAsia), an NGO which helps the poor and needy in the Philippines, including the grassroots population in Davao City. The second largest city next to the capital, Manila, Davao City is growing fast. It has an international airport and is being developed into a busy business, investment, cargo and tourism hub for the country's south.

However, this does not make lives any better for the fishermen who depend on the traditional fishing trade.

'Fishing is an unstable trade and [fishermen] are very poor. They only earn about US$2 per day,' says Nobleza, who decided to help them live better. But the NGO was struggling with funding and he needed a sustainable solution for its projects. So, in 2007, he founded Marina Gana Vida.

The name literally means 'earning from the sea'. Instead of lending the fishermen money, Nobleza provides hatchery-bred eggs or baby fish to the fishermen, whom he trains as nursery operators. He buys the young fish, or fingerlings, back and harvests them in marine fish cages. Finally, the fish are turned into packaged products, such as smoked fish and fish pate and sold to the market.

He also employs the fishermen's wives on the production line. 'The wives used to stay at home,' Nobleza says. 'Now they help us clean and prepare the fish for processing. The work brings in more income for the family. It also gives them more independence and decision-making power at home. It's a win-win scenario, which makes everyone happy,' Nobleza says.

His products, which are sold to hotels, restaurants and families, are natural and use no preservatives. 'We want our products to be a brand of healthy food for families and the community,' he says.

So far, Marina Gana Vida has benefitted 10,000 people in the fishing village, with each household increasing its income from US$57 to US$140 per month.

Nobleza's passion for his work impressed the judges of the 2012 MaD Award, who awarded him HK$150,000 to further the scheme.

'We look for a new generation of changemakers who pursue 'benefit enterprises'. [Nobleza's project] has improved the lives of people and created jobs and satisfaction. It enhances quality of life and addresses environmental concerns, all within a financially viable model,' says Rachel Chan Ka-yee, co-creator of MaD and convenor of the 2012 MaD Award, which rewards those who have assisted people in Asia.

The cash award came in handy for Nobleza, who used it to develop an organic feed mill and start up another project for a different community. But, most importantly, the award is a record of his ideals and vision.

'It means the concept of social enterprise works - that we can develop a business and help others at the same time,' he says. 'Money is not the biggest indicator of success in a business. It's the satisfaction from knowing you have made a difference in people's lives.'