Cheap Medicine and the Woman Who Could Not Say "No"
From 15 brave souls, membership is now nearly a thousand. From a small rented office space, the main office is now housed in its own building, constructed on its own lot. From one, staff members increased to 40. From a start up capital of less than a million, assets rose by more than a thousand percent.
These, in short, sum up the 12-year growth of BUPHARCO or Bukidnon Pharmaceutical Multipurpose Cooperative. The only known existing pharmaceutical cooperative operating in the country today, BUPHARCO was named by the Cooperative Development Authority's (CDA) as one of the "Most Efficiently Managed Community-type Cooperatives" in 2005.
Not in the prescription pad
Amelia C. Bojo or Amy is the current Chairperson of the Board of Directors of BUPHARCO. She may be one of the 15 founders who started BUPHARCO in 1994 but admits having been "saling pusa" ("I just tugged along") at the start. In fact, her inclusion in the co-op's Founding Board was due to the lack of names to fill in the last slot.
"I was not a very active member of the Bukidnon chapter of the Philippine Pharmacists Association (PPA), where the idea of a pharmaceutical cooperative started," she recounts.
"Somebody even paid for my membership fee, which I had to pay back in monthly installments," says Amy. Immediately after graduation and placing 4th in the pharmacists' board exams, she taught chemistry at the Central Mindanao University where she is a faculty member to this day. "I attended the Association's meetings. At times, they asked me to be a resource person on certain topics. But that was about it," she adds.
But for those who know Amy, "that was about it" is hardly "it." Her energy seems boundless as she juggles her time teaching, coordinating the Gender and Development program of Region 10, writing for her column in Bisaya magazine and working in BUPHARCO.
Even as she says she "wasn't keen on cooperatives" at the start, it was Amy who tapped her friends in the cooperative movement to give the Board basic information on cooperativism. Amy, who doesn't own a drugstore, would later admit that, "I am a volunteer brigade. I cannot just sit when given work to do."
The idea of a pharmaceutical cooperative came when single proprietors of drugstores faced steep competition when big drugstore chains came to Bukidnon. Also, nameless medicine peddlers proliferated all over the province, "they were in vans reaching even the remote barrios selling medicine, the safety of which we were unsure of," says Amy.
Although the PPA, in their meetings, recognized that these issues were "matters of survival" for the small drugstore owners, the idea of a pharmaceutical cooperative didn't exactly appeal to the majority of the Association's members.
Amy relates, "BUPHARCO was not a cooperative in the true sense of the word in the beginning." Though the co-op hosted an orientation on cooperativism, operationalization was difficult especially in the early days. "We simply wanted to pool our resources so we could buy medicine in bulk. It was cheaper that way. We were into wholesale distribution of pharmaceutical products. Membership was limited to pharmacists," she says.
Amy is always amazed when recalling how they started, "we had a very informal set-up, "inato (ouido) lang." There was an instance when the Board Secretary, realizing how tedious it was to take down minutes of Board meetings, "told me to be the Secretary instead and she'll be the Board Member. I agreed," Amy laughs.
No Bitter Pills
As Board Secretary for two terms, Amy served as bridge between the Board Members and the management and staff, a crucial position as the latter was getting bigger. She tried to synthesize what both the Board and those in the field wanted. "It also paid that I am a woman, because we all know that women are more attentive to details. This helped me deal with both the Board and the staff," she says.
When BUPHARCO elected its current set of officers in 2001, Amy was, again, not among the choices for the Chairperson position. The Board preferred two others for the post. "But when both declined," she shares, the staff nominated her and "the Board looked at me and asked me to do it. They know it's not my thing to say no. I agreed," and the rest was history.
Imelda Mercado, Operations Officer, has been with BUPHARCO since 1996. Imelda says Amy helped synthesize all the ideas to move BUPHARCO into a "real cooperative. Amy helped us learn about cooperativism," Imelda remembers.
BUPHARCO's officers and staff underwent reorientation and reorganization. "We had successive trainings," Imelda recalls, "but even before this, Amy was already studying, on her own, materials on cooperatives and she shared her insights with us."
Imelda believes that "problem-solving is so natural for Amy. She states the problem clearly but doesn't dwell on it. We spend more time, even a whole night, finding solutions, Amy doesn't let go until we've come up with viable solutions." It also helped that the Board, management and staff enjoyed good teamwork. "That was vital as we went through BUPHARCO's birth pains," Imelda adds.
Imelda further relates, "Although we wanted to expand membership to the public even before 2002, it was only when Amy became Chairperson that the idea was realized. We have long wanted to cater to the public." In 2002, BUPHARCO opened its first retail drugstore in Valencia. In 2003, the Malaybalay branch started its operations. Last year, three more pharmacies opened and another one is expected to start this year.
BUPHARCO has since become the people's source of cheap medicine. Tricycle drivers bring new clients to the co-op's outlets without any direction, a sure sign of the community's recognition and patronage of BUPHARCO.
Although, Imelda says, "At present, we only cater to a little more than 1% of the market. The market potential is still big." At the same time Imelda concedes that, "in Valencia alone, there are 13 pharmacies that include the big chains, plus four more in the hospitals." Still, it came as no surprise that BUPHARCO's gross sales grew by almost 800% in 2005 from less than a million peso in 1997.
Dispensing the co-op spirit
Amy says, "We've realized, through the years that it's not just about building up our capital but more importantly, it's about people living a dignified life. That's the cooperative spirit. It's time to think what is best for many." This time, "what is best for many" is not only opening up membership to non-pharmacists but also expanding BUPHARCO's services to its members.
Benefits for members include free hospitalization, death aid and endowment for retiring members, among others. The co-op's Loans and Savings program started in 1996 now have 14 loan packages, including educational loans. Microfinancing, a project under Loans and Savings is also available to members and non-member beneficiaries.
Diosa Sumael is one of the women members of the Panadtalan Tribal Association. She and four other indigenous women availed of BUPHARCO's microfinancing assistance for their mat weaving project. Other members of their tribe used the loans to improve mango production, install piggeries, among others.
"Amy introduced us to BUPHARCO," says Diosa, a Manobo from Panadtalan in Maramag. She has previously worked with Amy for UNICEF's program on tribal women and children. Amy linked Diosa's community with BUPHARCO to sustain what they have started.
Diosa says the "microfinancing project partly solved the problem of loan sharks. Where before, we pay the loan sharks 20% interest for our loans, we now only pay 2% interest for loans from BUPHARCO."
BUPHARCO's scheme not only discourages the community from being preyed on by loan sharks, it also strengthens the cooperative spirit among the borrowers. While loans are given separately, individuals organize themselves into groups of at least five persons. It becomes the group's responsibility to account for each member's duty to pay back individual loans on time. Thus, says Diosa, "for those in mango production,for example, ensuring a good harvest becomes a team effort."
While the co-op's microfinancing assistance revived the tribe's interest in mat weaving, a traditional activity, Amy explains that, "providing initial capital is not enough, we also needed to study designs to be competitive, and also define our market." As of now, Diosa and her group produce mats only when there is a purchase order.
Part of the microfinance assistance is training and technical support to would-be entrepreneurs. BUPHARCO also expanded its Savings Program to the youth, thus, the Youth Savers project for the children of BUPHARCO members. To instill the values of cooperativism, BUPHARCO conducts continuing education and training among its members and beneficiaries.
The prospects for BUPHARCO's growth are endless. Although it expects the E-VAT's impact on sales this year, the co-op looks forward to establishing more retail outlets. Also on the drawing board is a mango dehydration plant.
Amy expounds, "Aside from being a source of cheap medicine, I would like to believe that we are becoming a viable financial facility where people can put in their savings and invest. Consequently, we provide service to non-members as well."
Amy attributes BUPHARCO's success to the staff's integrity and commitment through the years. The all-women management team also shares Amy's leadership style. One of Amy's articles speaks of this philosophy, "Leadership is not being on top, it's encouraging everyone to be leaders... true leadership is not a question of position but a question of qualities...leadership is an attitude."
Imelda says that despite the difficulties they went through at the start, she decided to stay with BUPHARCO because "It feels good to know that we make a difference in the lives of others. Here I grow as a person. I am able to speak my mind, contribute my ideas for BUPHARCO's growth."
BUPHARCO has definitely evolved from being not just a source of cheap medicine but in Amy's words, "people's source of identity, belonging, something they can trust and identify with."