Within each bag of Balangay’s Best’s dried seafood specialties lies the unmistakeable scent of the sea—deep, saline, intoxicating. There’s the crowd-pleasing Darling Danggit, made with local rabbitfish split open to a heart-shaped form; Baby Bangsi, long pieces of dried flying fish that lie almost flat; Mommy Dilis, anchovies small enough to consume entirely in one bite; and Papa Pusit, spear-like pieces of squid with its tentacles fanned out at the bottom. Dried using solar dryers from local, sustainably-caught sea creatures, the said method lets people from all around the country (and beyond) to enjoy their sea-sourced goodness all year round. And though each variant has its own personality, a brief period in bubbling hot oil is all it takes to resurrect them back to life, turning the surface and edges astoundingly crisp and savory.
These artisanal products are the fruits of the labor of hardworking fishermen with whom Balangay’s Best has partnered, and whose livelihood and lives they aim to support and uplift. But the company sprung from a tragedy—super-typhoon Yolanda (a.k.a. Haiyan) in 2014 which would negatively impact the lives of the many fishermen of Bantayan Island, Cebu in numerous ways, leading to the destruction of many of the fishermen’s boats (thus limiting their means of making a living) and homes. This would motivate groups such as Gawad Kalinga, for which the FCI founders regularly volunteer, to initiate rehabilitation efforts—in the form of a special project then known as Balangay. While the project was able to help in recovering the lost boats, the fishermen—who still had countless other losses to make up for—still needed help recovering their livelihood. “It [was] almost like [having to] recover [their] entire [lives],” laments co-founder Dhang Tecson. “Some of them lost their family members [or] . . . their entire house.” The circumstances only served to worsen the status of these fishermen, already known to be the poorest sector in the country, thus prompting Tecson and friends to carry on the Balangay torch with their own independent venture: Balangay’s Best, under social enterprise Fishers & Changemakers Inc.
Launched during the 2nd leg of the Philippine Sustainable Seafood Week held earlier this year, Balangay’s Best aims to pick up where the GK project had finished and takes on a multi-pronged approach toward meeting their goal. The social enterprise works with various fishing communities (among which are the municipalities of Looc and Lubang in Occidental Mindoro, Ayungon and Bindoy in Negros Oriental, and Cantilan and Cortes in Surigao del Sur) and treating their partner fishers as business partners, not as inferiors (something Tecson emphasizes, having discovered how numerous local fishermen are treated unfairly at times by the middlemen in the industry) and helping them secure a means of living. This entails paying them more than double the market price and helping them obtain proper fishing gear, among other things, in hopes of invoking change amidst the numerous problems within the industry at current. At the same time, Balangay’s Best advocates for sustainable fishing practices (an important factor to consider given the limited supply of seafood in our waters), working in partnership with conservation organization Rare to encourage fishermen to do their part (even when the more sustainable option might not necessarily be the most convenient or even affordable option—e.g. taking the time to do daily catch monitoring or getting licensed, for example), and promoting awareness on these issues among us consumers as well.
Tecson admits things were more rocky in the beginning as none of the team members had any background on business. Pitching in their 13th month pay as initial capital, they decided to jump into the venture anyway, putting their best foot forward, finding luck with friends who would volunteer their respective talents, and learning from whatever mistakes they’d make along the way. Eventually they would take the initiative to participate in programs (e.g., the British Council Active Citizens, from which Tecson shares she would learn the nitty-gritty of the business side of Balangay’s Best) and join competitions (e.g. the annual BPI Sinag, from which they would emerge one of the ten winners who were able to get additional budget to expand their coverage to partner with more fishermen from more towns). Spreading through word-of-mouth, they would come to form connections with partner stores that carry their products to this day, as well as some of the most respected names in the Philippines’ culinary industry—Purple Yam’s Amy Besa and Toyo Eatery’s Jordy Navarra, among others—who continue to support them on their mission, helping promote the brand and working to include their products in their culinary creations.
Now focusing on forwarding the cause towards consumers through immersion trips and education on sustainability, Balangay’s Best has come a long way, transitioning from social enterprise to full-fledged business without ever losing sight of what they ultimately stand for. Pick up a pack at one of their many partner shops and establishments, knowing that you’re helping uphold a brighter future for Filipino fishers and for the environment in the form of a tasty breakfast.
A global Filipino brand of high-quality, wild-caught and naturally-processed sustainable seafood products made by artisan Filipino fishers. These products are manufactured and distributed by social enterprise Fishers and Changemakers, Inc.