MANILA, March 16, 2004 (STAR) It is often said that nothing symbolizes Filipino ingenuity more than the brightly decorated jeepney.

For over 50 years these uncomfortable, bone-rattling saunas on wheels have provided Filipinos with cheap public transport whether it be in the financial district of Makati City or out in the poor towns and cities in the provinces.

Despite its popularity, the jeepney is facing an uphill battle to maintain franchises, especially in Metro Manila, as competition grows from public transport operators running Japanese air-conditioned minibuses.

Virgilio Tolentino, who has been building jeepneys since 1979, believes the government wants jeepneys off the streets... at least in the cities. It is a claim the government denies of course but it has acknowledged no new jeepney franchises have been issued since November.

Tolentino and others like him are now seeking export markets in developing countries for the jeepney.

"Why not? It makes sense. Jeepneys are ideal for developing countries. They are cheap, easy to service and all you need are second hand parts," he told AFP.

He said the number of new jeepneys being built in the Philippines has fallen dramatically over the last couple of years as operators shift to imported minivans.

A few years ago his company, Tolentino Motors Corp. in Las Piñas City, was making about 120 jeepneys annually. Today the company would be lucky to make half that number, he said.

Now he is looking at exporting jeepneys to Africa via Dubai.

"I have a business partner in Dubai who wants to establish an assembly plant there (Dubai) to export jeepneys to Africa," Tolentino said.

"Nothing has been signed yet as talks are still going on but there is a market for the jeepney in developing countries."

He said some manufacturers were talking to potential business partners in Guam, India and Papua New Guinea.

"The main question," he said, "is cost." The average jeepney costs around 300,000 pesos (5,329 dollars) while airconditioned jeepneys cost around 650,000 pesos.

The jeepney, which derives its name from jeep and jitney, was born shortly after World War II and is purely a Filipino design.

With thousands of surplus US jeeps left on the islands and a growing need for public transport the two seat, four-cylinder engine jeeps were taken, stripped down and the chassis extended two and in some cases four times the original length.

As the old engines expired, they were replaced by reconditioned light truck engines from Japan.

Brightly decorated and made of stainless steel or galvanized iron, jeepneys can carry up to 18 passengers or more depending on how desperate you are and whether you mind hanging from the back door.

So customized are the jeepneys with accessories, color schemes and designs that no two are exactly the same. Many carry the names of wives or girlfriends, sons or daughters on the front in bright, large lettering and devotions such as "God’s Power" and "In God We Trust" on the tail guard.

Another manufacturer Loreto Santiaguel is already in talks with businessmen to export 4,000 air-conditioned jeepneys to Papua New Guinea.

For Santiaguel, who began LS Brotherhood Motors in 1987 in Cavite, the main stumbling block is money.

"This contract could be worth over P2 billion," he said.

"The government of the Philippines is not prepared to put one cent towards the project so the burden is on me ... the manufacturer and I don’t have that sort of money. We are already struggling to survive as it is."

A spokesman for the PNG embassy in Manila told AFP the country’s transport minister, Don Polye, visited the Philippines recently with a delegation to examine public transport and the jeepney was one option he had looked at. He added, however, the embassy is not involved in any commercial negotiations.

Polye at a press conference in Manila two weeks ago was quoted as saying the jeepney will play an important contribution to "our mass transport system."

"We want an efficient means of transport. The jeepney has the most potential in terms of quality. We want the type of technology we will be able to sustain," he was quoted as saying.

Santiaguel said an export order would give a significant boost to his business which only a few years ago employed 200 people and turned out 50 jeepneys a month. Today he employs 50 people and produces 10-20 units a month depending on demand.

"With the cost of parts going up all the time the profit margin is getting tighter and tighter. A few years ago your profit margin was P30,000 to P40,000 per unit. Today it is around P10,000.

"Here in the Philippines we have a product which has a ready made market in developing countries. But the government doesn’t seem all that interested in backing us and that I find sad. Not only for me but for the country as a whole," Santiaguel said. — AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved