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DOLE grant helps Southern Leyte fishball vendor bounce back from distress

Fishball vendor Melfo Bitor from the municipality of Sogod in Southern Leyte was on the verge of closing down her business due to the effects of strict quarantine restrictions imposed at the height of COVID-19 pandemic and the devastation caused by Super Typhoon Odette in December 2021.

Yet she was buoyed by the thought that she and her partner, Enrique, must exert more effort to keep the business going for the sake of their daughter, Lyka Mae. 

Another thing that motivated her to continue pushing forward was the trust and confidence given to her by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), which included her as one of the beneficiaries of the DOLE Integrated Livelihood Program (DILP).

The beginnings

Bitor was employed in a popular bake shop in Sogod town, some 67 kilometers northeast of the provincial capital, Maasin City. In 2018, management decided to assign her to their  branch in Calbayog City, Samar. Not wanting to be separated from her family, she opted to resign.

Bitor was already selling fishballs from a makeshift stall outside their house as a side hustle while she was working at the bake shop. Her sideline suddenly became her primary source of livelihood.

Melfo Bitor pointed to her first fishball stall located at the Saint Thomas Aquinas College in the municipality of Sogod, Southern Leyte. (Photo grabbed from a DOLE video documentary)

“Nagfi-fishball ako sa bahay namin kasi may paaralan na daycare tapos may barangay hall (I sell fishballs in front of our house because there is a daycare center and a barangay hall nearby),” Bitor said.

She started with a capital of P150. Later, she bought a bicycle sidecar, which she converted into a pedal-powered food cart, and became an ambulant vendor plying the downtown area.

Bitor’s perseverance caught the attention of Lorena Altejar, an employee at the local government of Sogod who was the municipality’s Public Employment Service Officer (PESO).

“Nakita ko sa kaniya ang potensiyal, kaya pina-profile ko siya para maisama siya sa mga beneficiaries ng Livelihood Integrated Program (LIP) ng DOLE (I saw in her a great potential, so I profiled her for inclusion in the Livelihood Integrated Program of DOLE),” Altejar said.

In February 2020, DOLE gave her six trays of eggs, five gallons of cooking oil, packs of fishballs, tempura, and squid balls, a gas stove, a cooking pan, and a cooking gas tank.

“Doon lang ako nakagamit ng mga kagamitan na magaganda, yung ibinigay ng DOLE sa akin (It was only then that I was able to use nice materials, the ones given by DOLE),” Bitor claimed.


But just about a month after receiving the DOLE assistance, the World Health Organization declared a COVID-19 pandemic prompting governments around the world, including the Philippines, to impose strict quarantine restrictions.

Many businesses, especially small entrepreneurs like Bitor, were forced to either slow down or shut down.

“Hindi talaga mamalayan na may darating na delubyo. May nararanasan din akong hindi maganda sa pagnenegosyo (It's difficult to predict when unforeseen circumstances will arise. I've encountered challenges in my business that I didn't anticipate),” she shared.

Bitor’s partner, Enrique Payot, also got infected by the coronavirus, and just as he completed the mandatory 14-day isolation, Super Typhoon Odette hit.

“Nung na-diagnose ako, nagkasakit ako ng COVID, tapos, na Odette,” narrated Payot, Bitor’s partner.  Paglabas ko sa quarantine, wala na, parang sumuko na rin ako eh, yung puwesto namin iba na. Pag-gising namin, parang hindi talaga pwede, walang patutunguhan. Ako susuko, pero siya  (pointing to his wife) palaging lumalaban. Mas maganda talaga, dalawa kayo lumalaban (I was diagnosed with COVID, then comes typhoon Odette. On getting out of quarantine, everything was gone. I feel like giving up too; our stall was already occupied by somebody else. One day we woke up, and it seems that we cannot do it anymore. I surrender, but my wife keeps on fighting. It’s better for the two of us to keep on fighting),” Payot said.

A desolate landscape at Bitor’s place in the days after Super Typhoon Odette. (Photo grabbed from a DOLE video documentary)

“Bumagsak, tapos binangon namin. Namasada ako, traysikel, at siya, kahit ano ang ibebenta, biskwit, tubig (It was down, but we got up. I drove a tricycle, and she sold anything worth selling-biscuits and water),”Payot recalled.

“May isang beses na wala kaming pang-lunch. Tiniis lang namin yun (There was a time we had nothing for lunch. We just endured),” Bitor likewise said.

Unexpectedly, their only daughter, Lyka, even in her innocence, has maintained the fire burning in them, for in their tender moments, the young, unassuming child would simply say, “laban lang,” (just keep going), and that lit up the couple’s darkened hopes.

Badat street food

The days following Typhoon Odette somehow offered some relief, albeit subdued. During these times, the “new normal” brand of pandemic moments gradually shifted back to the old normal routines. 

Bitor picked herself up from the agony of self-pity, fired by the fighting spirit mantra of her daughter. Her fishball business has acquired the name “Badat street food.”  The term Badat, she said, referred to the short call, the nickname of her only daughter, the source of her inner strength, whose no-surrender attitude served as the rallying cry of the home-based enterprise.

With renewed vigor, Bitor came back from stagnation, here pinning a tarpaulin of her business.  (Photo grabbed from a DOLE video documentary)

But equally prodding her to continue, for practical considerations even in the midst of the most trying days that they have gone through, was the support given by DOLE through Atlejar, the PESO manager of Sogod. It was a big deal; it has always been a big deal in the life of Bitor, something she had to cling to.

Pagkatapos ng Odette, bumalik ako paninda, gamit ko pa rin yung mga kagamitan na bigay ng DOLE, kasi hindi ko naman sasayangin yung binigay sa akin na assistance.  Buo pa rin ang loob ko na bumabangon kasi, bakit ko naman sasayangin, may gamit naman galing sa DOLE na pwede ko pang magamit kahit walang wala na kami noon.  (After Odette, I returned to vending using the same materials given by DOLE. Why should I waste the things given to me as assistance? I have full resolve that I will get up, using the DOLE materials that I can still use despite having lost them),” she said. 

Bouncing back

The turnaround was slowly catching up. Bitor realized the big difference in earnings before and after using the DOLE materials. She used to earn P700 per day, but with the help of DOLE, this has increased to P3,000 a day, except on “down days” due to COVID and immediately following the natural storm.

The fishball business has grown from a rolling store into four branches within the town of Sogod. (Photo grabbed from a DOLE video documentary)

From a single rolling food cart, Bitor now has four branches within the town proper, necessitating the employment of nine workers.

Their house, which was once derided as similar to a pigsty, was slowly refurbished into a decent, concrete dwelling. 

Bitor has also bought a “potpot,” or a pedicab, and a motorcycle. From her street food earnings, she was also able to send her younger sister to a private school in Maasin City, and she has since finished 12th grade.

Actual photo of Bitor’s poor, decrepit house.  (Photo grabbed from a DOLE video documentary)
The renovated house is complete with furnishings, as shown here with Enrique, Bitor’s live-in partner, and their daughter, Lyka.  (Photo grabbed from a DOLE video documentary)

The daily needs are no longer hard to come by. She has cash in the bank and petty cash for their daily needs.

From fishballs, her product line now includes barbecued meat and innards, fried chicken, and dumplings (siomai).

“Salamat talaga sa DOLE, kasi isa din iyon sa buhay ko, na pagbutihin ko para maangat ko, para ma-proud naman sa akin yung DOLE na binigyan, hindi nasayang yung binigay sa DOLE, at sa palaging pagdarasal (I really thanked DOLE because it made me realize that I should manage the assistance to improve my life, so the agency will be proud of me for having not wasted what they have given, and my prayers),”Bitor poignantly declared.

Melfo Bitor celebrated in front of one of the four Badat Street Food outlets.  (Photo grabbed from a DOLE video documentary)

National winner

Bitor’s story became the contender for Eastern Visayas in a national search of successful ventures that were assisted by DOLE, a recognition for undertakings that began in humble beginnings with visible, progressive results. 

Badat Street Food won First Place in the Individual Kabuhayan Award during the awarding rites held in Manila on November 23, 2023. The winners also received a cash prize of P40,000.

Melfo Bitor (4th from left) is all smiles during the awarding ceremony of the Kabuhayan Award, first placer in a national search for best managed DOLE-assisted livelihood projects. (Photo courtesy of DOLE-Southern Leyte)

Bitor said they planned to buy a piece of land they can call their own; the lot they now live in barangay Zone 5, Sogod, is owned by the government. Also on the planning horizon is a water refilling business. Whatever happens for better or worse things to come, Bitor stressed she would not let go of the fishball business.

But she is willing to let go of her situation now that she lives with Enrique under one roof. She intimated that they would get married. 

When that moment comes, it will be the best commentary on resilience and determination in action, with DOLE as a key player, playing a huge, important role.  (LDL/MMP/PIA-Southern Leyte)

About the Author

Marcelo Pedalino

Regional Editor

Region 8

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