Propelling Empowerment in Barangay Communities

The Philippines has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In contrast, the Philippines also faces considerable challenges due to social and environmental issues. Education and health are persistent problems. 1 out of 4 Filipinos live in poverty, and 1 in 3 children are developmentally stunted due to malnutrition. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods frequently devastate the nation. Additionally, pollution and plastic waste are ongoing problems experienced throughout the country.

Project Propel has been working in the Philippines since 2013. Project Propel has been successful in quickly developing sustainable and community-based programs that require minimal intervention. Their approach addresses the interrelated nature of issues affecting the Philippines. Elizabeth Lanning, Founder and CEO, was very intentional about establishing Project Propel’s integrative approach to assessing needs and program development within Filipino communities. She recently spoke with us about how Project Propel builds trust and empowers communities in the Philippines.

Project Propel Fresh Perspectives

Illustration from a youth-authored book, “Once Upon a Raincloud.” It is an interactive story about the dangers young people experience during flood seasons in the Philippines. The book addresses pollution, diseases, and includes emergency precautions for children. Education and empowerment are central to every Project Propel program.

Project Propel maximizes outcomes by taking a holistic approach to social impact in the Philippines, especially Metro Manila. How do you select initiatives?

Initiatives are largely determined by the communities that we are working with. The way that we choose issues is by involving the community and listening to their most pressing concerns. We are very much community-based. We are using an integrative approach to development.

I think, for the most part, communities know their problems and the things that affect them more than anyone else.

It’s really just about developing the proper tools for measurement and trying to adequately gauge the largest needs of the community; getting the community to tell you what they see as the largest problem and working with that. For every initiative, that has been the case–the community shows us what their problem is, the health workers revealing their limitations. It comes from what we see or hear in the community.

Manila is the among most densely populated cities in the world, selecting high impact initiatives is especially critical. Which program areas have resulted from your close collaboration with local communities?

We currently have four programs. The Urban Barangay Gardens, which is actually the first initiative, the Medicabs, Fresh Perspectives, and EcoWings. The Urban Barangay Gardens is an agricultural and nutritional initiative. It was designed for disadvantaged and undernourished communities, to try and increase their vegetable and fruit consumption and lower their risk of malnutrition.

Project Propel Urban Barangay Gardens

The Philippines is a country where 1 in 3 children are stunted as a result of long-term nutritional deprivation. Project Propel provides health education, bridging the connection between noncommunicable diseases and proper nutrition across all ages.

It’s not just a garden. It begins first and foremost with health screenings within the community, and seeing where they are in regards of health. We pass out several types of questionnaires, and it ends up being three different needs assessments. The purpose of the needs assessments is to determine the biggest health problem of the community, and also to determine the most changeable health problem.

Urban Barangay Gardens

The Urban Barangay Gardens came about quite organically.

Malnutrition was found to be the most prevalent health problem. With that, the Urban Barangay Gardens program was designed–but it was just as much health education as it was an actual garden. We conducted a series of nine health modules that usually start with the prevalence of malnutrition in the Philippines to the connection between noncommunicable diseases and nutrition. Then, it gets into methods of organic gardening and the benefits of having a garden. Once we get into that phase of the health education, we create the urban gardens, and that becomes a reinforcing activity.

After the education, the gardens serve as an opportunity for behavior change. On day one, we have them choose a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, so they are actually working toward their own self-governed organization. The last thing to ensure sustainability is giving them the tools to write the vice mayor, who has an agricultural initiative, and request for seeds and soil; and to work with the barangay to get the tools that they need to sustain the garden.  They can take portions of the herbs from the garden, sell them, and have the proceeds go back into their garden. That way if the fence breaks or they need to purchase materials, then they have the means to do so.

The first garden was set up in 2013, and we currently have seven, with another one in the works. We’ve had one fall off, but for the most part, it’s been a successful program and we’re looking forward to expanding it. We are completely alongside them for the initial setup of the community garden. The way that the programs are growing is really from one barangay to the next.

Neighboring barangays see the gardens and the benefits they bring to the communities.  We can have the leaders from the already existing gardens train leaders of the neighboring gardens, and it becomes a trickle effect.

Project Propel Urban Barangay Gardens

The Urban Barangay Gardens program was designed to solve malnutrition through health education and urban agriculture. Most members of the gardens are women or mothers. Education is a key component in motivating members to sustain healthy habits. Portions of harvests can be sold, with proceeds going back into the garden for maintenance and sustainability.


The medicab name was inspired by pedicabs, which are pedal-driven bicycles that transport people around town. We were sitting at a round table with barangay health workers, really trying to gauge what would help them in their job. We found that the elderly and persons with disabilities were not visiting the barangay health clinic.  We also found that many members of the community suffered from communicable diseases and would benefit from regular health checks such as blood pressure screening.

Collaboratively, we came up with the idea to design a ‘Medicab’ to address this need.

Project Propel Medicabs

Each medicab is equipped with first-aid supplies, materials for health screenings emergency relief equipment, and a space for a single stretcher. Medicabs provide a useful means for transporting people in labor, emergency situations, and simply reaching people who cannot travel to clinics.

Fresh Perspectives

Fresh Perspectives is a platform for youth. A lot of the youth in these communities have experiences that others could learn from, however, they lack the platform to share them.   We started with art workshops in the barangay and were amazed by the talent in not only art but also in poetry and creative writing. Branching off the art workshops, we identified talented artists and writers with important stories to share.

Project Propel Fresh Perspectives

Cover for “Once Upon a Raincloud.”

We saw the value and teaching opportunity that storytelling could be among other youth from disadvantaged communities.

Fresh Perspectives youth have now written and illustrated Once Upon a Rain Cloud which gives personal accounts of the annual floods in Metro Manila, incorporating important health and safety messages for flood season.

Project Propel is currently seeking funding to create a second book by kids for kids, addressing the growing problem of human trafficking, sexual abuse, and exploitation. This book would serve as a tool for children at risk, teaching children how to recognize sexual abuse and exploitation, and how to communicate and report such offenses.

The Fresh Perspectives program is open to all youth, whether they are in school or not.

Project Propel Fresh Perspectives

Fresh Perspectives is a program for the youth to give them a means of expression through a variety of mediums, such as creative writing, poetry, or art. It provides a platform and voice for children and youth to discuss pressing and relevant topics. Children select their own topics based on issues that affect them.


Project Propel Eco-Wings

Constructing an Eco-Wing, a reusable and recyclable menstruation pad.

Our latest initiative is EcoWings, which took off at the beginning of this year. EcoWings is a livelihood program of Project Propel and focuses on uplifting women in disadvantaged communities in Metro Manila and surrounding areas.

We conducted sewing classes for five women from the communities we work with–teaching them how to make reusable, environmentally-friendly menstruation pads.  These pads are cost-effective and they can help girls and women address insufficient access to menstrual hygiene materials.

Because of the challenges which accompany their menstruation, many young girls absent themselves from schools on the days of their periods, and sometimes discontinue their studies entirely.

This program will transition into a micro-enterprise where the women completely run the livelihood program by themselves, gaining income for their families. Each kit will come with an information packet so this program is just as much about reproductive health and menstrual health hygiene education as it is about promoting a product that is good for the environment. 

Project Propel Eco-Wings

Eco-Wings is a livelihood program for women to produce eco-friendly menstrual pads. These necessary products will further enable a more widespread education on topics of women’s health and hygiene.

Approximately 3 million people live in barangays. Engagement at the barangay level is central to every Project Propel initiative. How do you approach this level of engagement for implementing programs?

A barangay is essentially a village and is the most local branch of government in the Philippines. It’s imperative to involve the barangays, because the communities that we are working with are essentially closed or hidden communities. They are informal settlements most of which are located along the riverways or railroads, and they can’t be seen from the street.

Once the community members see the level of trust and partnership from the barangay, they are more adept to welcome us into their close-knit communities.

Project Propel Urban Barangay Gardens

According to the National Housing Authority, 3 million, or 1 in 4 people in Metro Manila occupy informal communities. These communities are very close-knit, operating almost as family units. It is uncommon to see foreigners within them.

Another key component is our focus on member empowerment.

Many of the communities have grown accustomed to feeding programs and distributions.  Though we participate to some extent in similar activities, our real main focus is to educate and empower people. Lao Tzu wrote in Tao Te Ching, “The Master doesn’t talk, he acts, when his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing, we did it all by ourselves!”’ I love that, and I think it exudes empowerment.

When a garden is started, the people say, “Wow, we started a garden!” Or, the health workers are making their rounds with the medicabs, and they take ownership, “Wow, we are really meeting the needs of the people.” The kids are saying, “We wrote a book!” The women are saying, ”We created these products.”

Project Propel Urban Barangay Gardens

Project Propel teaches members urban farming techniques which help to maximize garden space. These gardens improve lifestyles for families. They are also effective in community-building, beautifying, and improving neighborhood safety.

Empowerment is also evident at the community level.  The entire community feels empowered that their public spaces are cleaner, and the barangay takes ownership for having a beautiful garden that they can display to neighboring barangays.

I think that empowering the entire village is just as important as empowering each individual within the programs.

There is a lot of plastic waste used in the Urban Barangay Gardens. How did you arrive at utilizing plastic waste as a solution?

There isn’t an ideal collection system in place. Garbage is rarely segregated before it is left on the street.  People will scavenge in the trash piles and sell plastics, metals, and even food that has been disposed of.

Project Propel Urban Barangay Gardens

Bottles are well-suited for drip irrigation systems along a vertical orientation. This method maximizes water usage and enables the capture of rainwater. The plants also makes urban walls more beautiful and green.

In the riverside communities, it is also common to fish plastic out of the water.  I once noticed a man doing this after one of the floods, which is the ideal time for them to get a lot of plastic because trash will flow downstream in abundance.  Once he gathers a number of plastic bottles, he will take them to the local junk shop and get enough money to buy a can of sardines.   Members of these communities eat rice and sardines, or some sort of canned meat, for almost every meal.

That was such an interesting concept, that somebody would be out on the river fishing–but actually fishing for plastic, in order to buy fish.

We’ve tried to get the plastic bottles out of the river and then utilize the wall space for urban gardens. We have worked with the barangay to cover the walls in the community.  It helped make the walls beautiful and green. We’ve done a lot with plastic bottles. We even created our livelihood store where members sell their produce out of plastic bottles.

Project Propel Urban Barangay Gardens

Members of the Urban Gardens grow vegetables, fruits, and herbs on their individual plots. They get a certain amount of space to use in the garden. If they can collect more plastic bottles, they will have a greater harvest.

We’ve also designed garbage segregation bins in the streets of community out of plastic bottles. It is very rare to find a trashcan, let alone recycling or composting bins. Most recently we have started an Eco-brick challenge where members fill plastic bottles with plastic wrappers, straws and bags until they can be used to form the actual fences and raised beds of the gardens.

Your mobile clinic medicabs were developed by Project Propel. What went into the design process?

The idea and the development for the medicabs came from the barangay health workers. At one of our meetings, it came about that a lot of people weren’t coming to the clinic, even though most barangays have about 15 health workers. It was really just the idea, “How can we get to them?” It unfolded in about an hour of brainstorming and sketching a basic design of a pedicab with collapsible chairs which could accommodate a stretcher.

After that meeting, myself, with one of the health workers, hopped into a tricycle and went across the street to another barangay to discuss the design with a local welder. About a week later, we had our first medicab. It unfolded very, very, fast. It was about a one-hour sketch, a meeting that went across to the other side of the street, and then became a program. We had a queue, and the welder was generating about a medicab a week for a while.

Project Propel Medicabs

Designing the medicabs involved ideas about how the seats should fold, and how stretchers could help pregnant or injured people, and people with disabilities. Neighboring communities are spread out, yet close enough that a bike can quickly travel between them.

Pedal-driven transport makes sense because there is no cost in fuel, and it is already a well-established form of local transport in the area and it can access areas which cannot be reached by car.

 Fresh Perspectives addresses challenging topics that can deeply affect young people in several ways. How do you select the issues that get addressed?
Project Propel Fresh Perspectives

Art from “Once Upon a Raincloud.”

They are challenging topics, especially with the floods. The youth came up with that topic completely on their own. It’s interesting, because these are things that affect them–having to carry your backpack on your head and walk home in waist-deep water, and dealing with diseases that can result from being exposed to contaminated water.

They are wanting to talk about it, because it troubles them or disrupts their flow of living.

With the human trafficking and sexual abuse and exploitation we will be tackling, it’s a really heavy and pertinent subject. The island of Cebu is actually one of the major trafficking hubs of the world, so it’s a serious problem.  There has also been recent research in the Philippine media on the silent problem of sexual abuse within the family.

Project Propel Fresh Perspectives

Children’s books become a way to educate the public at large. Books provide an interactive way to learn safety precautions or local emergency numbers for natural disasters. These particular books are educational tools developed by children to empower their communities.

We are realizing that the youth in the communities that we’re working with are vulnerable to these issues. However, there is that cultural taboo and it is rarely spoken about.  Our hope for the book is to also educate and empower the child who reads it. If there is a child who is experiencing rape, incest, or some other form of sexual abuse or exploitation, this book will teach them tools to use to communicate about it with hopes to put an end to the cycle.

This book is not just enlightening people about this problem, but pulling people out of it–and giving them a voice so they can help other kids that are going through it, or prevent others from going through it in the future.

Feminine hygiene is an area of health that often gets ignored. How is EcoWings highlighting the connections between menstrual or reproductive health and empowering women?

There are so many cultural misconceptions around menstruation in the Philippines.  For example, women typically will not bathe or shower during menstruation.    It is also quite normal for women to wash their faces with their underwear after their first menstruation.   A lot of girls believe that once they get their periods, they can get pregnant any day of the month.

Project Propel Eco-Wings

Eco-Wings will include packaging and materials about hygiene education, and reproductive and sex education. Through conversations, Project Propel is finding that women want to discuss these issues, and share the dialogue with their daughters.

The information pamphlet with the Eco-Wings packaging address menstrual hygiene education and reproductive education. These are all topics that are again very much taboo, and are clouded in misconceptions in the Philippines. When it comes to reproductive health, there are a lot of questions. Once we go through it together, they want to share it with their daughters. We’re working on that, and to be as respectful as we can be with the culture. I want this to be a way we can change some of the practices and enlighten the people, and of course, empower them.

When you know how to manage your menstruation properly, when you understand how to avoid pregnancy and disease–that’s empowering.

How has the situation in Manila changed since Project Propel started working in the region?

It’s changed a great deal. In several of the communities we’re involved with now, there have been homes demolished because of the rapid urban development.  It is commonplace that these communities are demolished and members relocated to the outskirts of the city where there are limited employment opportunities.  A number of families end up returning to the city so they can find work again and these are often to more congested conditions due to the frequent demolitions that take place.

On a positive note, I’m also noticing that the “green” movement is starting to gain traction in the Philippines and Project Propel is excited to be a part of that.

What most concerns you about the world today? What gives you hope?

The disparity between socioeconomic levels here is quite glaring on a day-to-day basis.  I feel as that gap widens, it becomes harder for individuals on the upper end of the spectrum to empathize with the day-to-day struggles with people who are stuck in the cycle of poverty.   Even after living here for many years, the amount of poverty in the surroundings still overwhelms me.

Project Propel Eco-Wings

What gives me hope are our program members–many of whom are my dearest friends now.   I have seen transformations in the people we work with.

Women who were previously on the outskirts of society, now manage the barangay gardens and exhibit the fruits of their labor to neighboring communities with pride.   I have listened to the stories of youth, and watch them grow into kind, strong, self-assured individuals with important lessons to share.

That really is the root of our organization–to educate, instill change, and empower individuals and communities.  Seeing lives positively impacted in very concrete and visible ways is a daily inspiration to the Project Propel team.

We are also very volunteer-centered and have a close-knit network of donors.  Connecting volunteers and donors is a way of bridging communities which otherwise would not have such exposure.  To get involved or donate funds or gifts-in-kind to Project Propel, visit


Elizabeth Lanning is the Founder and CEO of Project Propel and has been based in Metro Manila since 2012. Project Propel’s work stemmed from Elizabeth’s graduate research with a nearby informal settlement community. Elizabeth sought to apply her educational background in social work and public health by starting a grassroots non-profit organization, Project Propel. Since then, she has enjoyed fostering relationships with more communities and their leaders, collaboratively working to improve access to health, nutrition, as well as contribute to safer and cleaner neighborhoods. 



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