Philippine ambassador showcases fibre of her homeland

Grace Princesa has turned her residence into an exhibit of all the things that abaca, believed to be the strongest natural fibre in the world, is capable of, from furniture to clothing.

August 24, 2010, Abu Dhabi: H.E. Grace R. Princessa, the Phillpine's Ambassador to the U.A.E, sits in the residence of the Ambassador. Her excellence opened her doors to the media today to showcase furniture design, and other pieces of art from the Phillipines. The Embassy's collection was highlighted by the work of Espie E. Cabrera, a Manilla based concept designer.

Lee Hoagland/ The National
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ABU DHABI // When Grace Princesa arrived in the capital last October, she knew exactly what she would do to turn the three-storey villa on Muroor Road into a home. But interior design was not the only thing on the Philippine ambassador's mind when it came to the residence. She also wanted to promote one of her country's most important exports - abaca, believed to be the strongest natural fibre in the world.

The Philippines grows 85 per cent of the banana-like plant, also known as Manila hemp, which has broad leaves and long stalks. Abaca is indigenous to the islands, thriving in its warm, wet climate and volcanic soil. The stalks have a long local history of being either handwoven or processed, turned into a variety of materials including cordage, furniture and textiles. "Abaca best exemplifies the Filipino - strong, resilient and exceptional," Ms Princesa said yesterday at the residence in Camp Al Nahyan. "We are not only workers, we are known for our rich natural resources and world-class products."

The push is for more than industry, however. Ms Princesa believes that if exports catch on, abaca could create enough work to change the pattern of her country's women moving abroad to work. "It has to be migration by choice and not migration by desperation," she said. "We can minimise feminised migration and its social costs by creating an opportunity for women to stay in the country and work in the abaca industry."

During a tour of the seven-bedroom home, which she also calls Maharlika House, or the House of the Nobility, Ms Princesa pointed out furniture, sculptures and fabrics that had been shipped in from the Philippines and installed during a 20-day refurnishing project conducted in co-operation with the Fiber Industry Development Authority in Manila. Wearing a Filipiniana, an off-white top and red skirt made of silk and abaca, Ms Princesa pointed to an assortment of unlikely goodies produced from the hearty fibre, including 13 pairs of brightly coloured sandals, six wide-brimmed hats, handbags and even moisturising lotion.

Ms Princesa is from Bicol province in Ligao, Albay, about 314km south-east of Manila, where abaca is one of the major resources and helps to boost small-scale industries. "I grew up in abaca," she said. "I used to play with bales of abaca when I was a child. Now, as an ambassador, I'm going out of my way to promote abaca to the Filipino community, diplomats, furniture traders and to investors in the UAE."

Ms Princesa's interior designer, Espie Cabrera, said about 70 per cent of the furniture and accessories in the ambassador's home were made from the "flexible and versatile" material. They include 14 dining chairs, two massive sofas, the carpet and a candle-holder. After Ramadan, Ms Princesa will welcome diplomatic guests and business people into her home in an attempt to further promote the material. She has already approached ship captains to encourage the use of abaca rope.

"Abaca can also be extensively used in oil rigs here in the UAE," she said. "Abaca is used in making Philippine and Japanese paper bills and partly used in manufacturing Mercedes-Benz automobile parts." Ms Cabrera believes that abaca will be well received in the UAE market. "The Emiratis here will see an entirely new concept," she said.