“My job will end when there are no more poor farmers left in the Philippines. That’s the way I measure success. That’s my driving force.”
Erika Ng Wong wasn’t always an ice cream lover. In fact, sitting down with her for our interview, she mentions it, right away: “I don’t like ice cream as a person,” she says. “I don’t like sweets.”
But that didn’t stop her from founding Karabella, a young dairy brand and social enterprise based in Angat, Bulacan, specializing in ice cream and milk shakes. But while most dairy brands make use of good ol’ cow’s milk, Karabella opts for another route altogether:
“We use carabao’s milk,” Erika says. “We’re focused on highlighting local and natural products. They’re made locally, sourced locally, and natural.”
It all started at the GK Enchanted Farm, a platform of the community development organization Gawad Kalinga, aiming to help alleviate the local poor through social enterprise. Erika had been associated with GK, and one day learned that the movement was pushing the idea of clean, locally made ice cream as a potential way to help.
As it turned out, besides being a strong agricultural country, the Philippines didn’t have much to brag about in terms of dairy: 98% of milk consumed by locals is imported. There was a hole to fill, and Erika opted to do just that, finding the unique selling point she needed in the Philippines’ national animal: the carabao, commonly known as the water buffalo.
“We worked with a lot of international volunteers in GK Enchanted Farm, including the French,” Erika shares. “Now, it was the first time for them to try carabao’s milk, because they don’t have that in France. And for them, the milk itself was really good! India has a big population of buffalo, and we have the same climate as them. So, if they can do it, why not us? Why don’t we create a wide range of products using carabao’s milk and showcase the greatness of this animal?”
Now, showing what the locals can do is what Karabella has become all about. Erika points out that carabao’s milk is better than cow’s milk in plenty of ways – it has more calcium, more protein, and is creamier. In that regard, it’s perfect for the ice cream and the other products that they’ve begun preparing. They’re starting to make leche flan (caramel pudding) out of carabao’s milk, as well as selling the milk itself in bottles.
And all the while, the stars of the show remain the farmers and their loyal carabao. The relationship of the business to the local farmers’ families has been so good that one carabao was named ‘Karabella’ in honor of the brand.
“We really want to impact the lives of farmers, so we’re coming up with a social impact assessment on how we’re helping them,” Erika says. “We don’t just want to be their customers. We want to work beyond a customer-supplier relationship. But I envision that we treat them as more than just suppliers; we also treat them as family, by providing scholarships to their grandkids, and healthcare.”
Meanwhile, some roles in the management of Karabella have been extended to some young women from the GK community. They’re not just sellers of the ice cream; they help manage operations, they demonstrate the ice cream making process for visitors to the GK community.
“We help them realize their opportunities,” she says, “Before they were very shy and weren’t very confident speaking in English. Now, they can’t stop talking! Seeing their confidence, seeing that they’re dreaming with me, it really makes me want to keep doing this.”
Using ice cream to promote positive change right in her country’s backyard? Not bad for a non-ice cream lover.
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