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Social Enterprise Projects in Southeast Asia, by Joel

Over the course of our five months in Southeast Asia, we encountered a number of restaurants, hotels and other local businesses operating with the express mission of supporting a local community in need. These social enterprise projects are often funded by NGOs who provide the backing and expertise to get the business up and running, while local youth are trained as staff and profits are reinvested in the form of skills development programs.

The following social enterprises in Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam offered vegetarian and vegan food, a welcoming atmosphere, and clearly demonstrable benefit to the disabled and underserved young people in their respective communities. So next time you’re in town, do stop in as these projects deserve your support!

Epic Arts Cafe​

UK-based NGO Epic Arts launched this cafe in Kampot in 2003 to empower deaf and disabled young Cambodians through the arts. Bright, airy and situated just two blocks from the scenic riverfront, Epic Arts Cafe offers wholesome, artfully-prepared vegetarian and non-veg fare for $2-$3 a dish. To our astonishment, the cafe also offers bagels, which while not authentically New York-style, were still a welcome reminder of home. To place an order with the deaf staff, customers circle their selections on the paper menu provided, which I’ve found works at least as well as communicating verbally anywhere, with anyone.

Through a combination of cafe proceeds, the sale of locally produced art, a for-hire traveling theater troupe, assistance from fellow NGOs, and individual donations, Epic Arts has provided free classes in sign language, literacy, performing arts and life skills training to the local community and visitors alike. Though an explicitly Christian nonprofit, Epic’s inclusive model provides training and supports the artistic development of participants of all abilities and faiths.

Inaugurating a dedicated arts center in 2009 and launching its flagship inclusive arts course two years ago, the cafe now aspires to become a self-sustaining social enterprise, operating without the aid of donor funds. That said, to help this committed group realize its ambitious goal, it’s not too late to donate.

Makabata Guesthouse

Opened in 2011, this social enterprise guesthouse and cafe in Manila is the culmination of decades of work by the Philippine children’s rights organization Bahay Tuluyan to establish a permanent base for providing emergency housing and vital social services for at-risk youth in the Malate neighborhood. The guesthouse is staffed by previously homeless teens and young adults who receive on-site hospitality training to accommodate guests with attentiveness and professionalism.

At $30/night for a double room with air con, Makabata is an excellent budget option in a metropolis surprisingly lacking in affordable accommodation, considering the low cost of living generally. Our room was well-appointed with hardwood floors and a balcony, a comfy bed and private bath, though hot water was in short supply. Makabata is located relatively close to the airport, and offers generous discounts to seniors, the disabled, NGO staff and Bahay Tuluyan volunteers. A rare find on the meat-heavy menus that typify the national cuisine, Makabata’s cafe offers vegan and vegetarian options, including cheeseless pizza available upon request.

However, the competing tendencies of running a guesthouse and crisis center in the same building are apparent. Noise from the busy street starts early and goes late. Guests should be prepared for children running about unsupervised, and comfortable staying in a neighborhood that some would describe as having plenty of local character, but others might call a slum. Of course, Makabata is situated where it is to serve a community in need. We found it to be a refreshing change of pace from the hostel scene, and felt good about supporting the indispensable work of Bahay Tuluyan.

Bread of Life

Located in central Vietnam’s bustling city of Da Nang, Bread of Life is a social enterprise bakery and restaurant staffed by deaf local youth. An outgrowth of an NGO project started in the late ’90s, Bread of Life caters to travelers with an exhaustive menu of western fare (including bagels!) that you’d be hard-pressed to find in recognizable form just about anywhere else in town. With a perennial top rating on TripAdvisor, vegetarians and omnivores can indulge in anything from brunch to burgers, though vegan options are somewhat limited and the prices aren’t particularly cheap by local standards.

The restaurant has a homey atmosphere and is well-managed by an English-speaking, disabled Vietnamese woman who seats groups and takes orders, while deaf servers employ animated use of universal gestures to communicate with - and tastefully entertain - customers. Like Epic Arts in Cambodia, Bread of Life uses its proceeds to provide English and sign language instruction, vocational and skills training, and even housing for its employees. For ten years the project has helped cultivate a community of deaf residents who would otherwise be isolated and lacking in educational or employment opportunities, and just being there you get a real sense of the tremendous impact this place has had. So make sure to stop by Bread of Life next time you’re in Da Nang, or otherwise consider donating to help these folks continue their life-changing work.

Gaia Café and Crafts​

A twelve-hour bus ride north of Manila is the sleepy alpine village of Sagada, surrounded by lush pine forest and punctuated by colorful homes built atop and around protruding rock formations. At the end of the main road running through town, and not far from the entrance to an underground cave system, sits a large wooden cabin clinging to the hillside. With wraparound outdoor seating, Gaia Cafe and Crafts offers a jaw-dropping view of the valley below, while serving up the most delicious meals we encountered during our month in the Philippines.

Using ingredients sourced from their backyard, Gaia’s all-vegan menu boasts breakfast delights like cinnamon hash browns and French toast, hearty sandwiches and pasta dishes, strong, locally-grown coffee and three flavors of muffins that you can get boxed up by the half dozen. The cafe has a distinctly feminist flair, with aspirational slogans peppering the walls and a cozy interior space that houses an impressive collection of radical authors and women’s lit for sale, as well as an assortment of handmade crafts and clothes, health products, locally-sourced honey and other items. Eco-friendly and operating on a zero-waste model, the women of Gaia have connected the dots between vegan, environmental and feminist advocacy in a country where these concerns are far from the norm.

​While not technically a social enterprise project, Gaia is family-owned and -operated, so the profits stay in the community. Being family-run means the cafe might not always open right on time, though you can duck down to the family’s home to inquire. Gaia offers outlets for its guests to use, but periodic power outages mean that phone charging - and smoothie blending - may be off the menu. The food might take a while to arrive, but considering the view from your table, you’ll be in no rush to leave. But for when you do have to go, the bathrooms are colorfully decorated.​

Gaia is located a good ways from the center of town though, and after two days of walking 45 minutes each way for every meal in this village of no motor transit, we up and moved hostels to be closer to the vegan’s paradise at the end of the road.

words by Joel Remland.

photos of Gaia by Joel Remland.

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