When the pioneering crypto entrepreneur Luis Buenaventura announced he was collaborating on a non-fungible token (NFT) drop with celebrity influencer Heart Evangelista, a well-known decorator of Birkin tote bags, it signaled a shift in the nascent cryptomart scene in the Philippines. This was the first time someone from the local entertainment world, with 9 million Instagram followers, was wading into the niche waters of the NFT space.

The collaboration was partly a social experiment to see just where the Philippine NFT marketplace was at, several months after it began to explode around the world. The drop consisted of two paintings Evangelista made over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, animated by Buenaventura and set to music by Rodel Colmenar of the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra. The artworks were auctioned on OpenSea and fetched prices of P3.5 million and P3 million (US$58,000 and $68,000) each, going to well-known NFT collectors Colin Goltra, who previously headed Binance APAC, and an anonymous buyer who goes by the handle “AxieBoss.”

“This validated two things: First is that there is enough of a local art collector crowd for NFTs,” Buenaventura says, “and that they do have money.”  Those who bid at the auction already had wallets full of ether (ETH) because these individuals prospered from early entry into cryptocurrency.

Other Filipinos have found gainful income and employment in the NFT market. Graphic designer and NFT artist AJ Dimarucot minted and sold his first three NFT artworks on the Foundation platform in March 2021. He then took on managing the First Mint Fund, a program that helps Southeast Asian artists mint their first NFTs by covering their gas fees, which can run pretty high. The fund, which was originally seeded with P100,000 from Gabby Dizon and Goltra’s Narra Gallery, is now worth millions simply because the value of ETH has gone up. To date, more than 30 artists from the region have been selected for funding.

The NFT space is attracting a slew of other homegrown projects that promote Filipino culture. Instigated by the Philippine National Book Development Board’s creative director for the Frankfurt Book Fair along with Danella Yaptinchay, the first Philippine NFT book was created. It was written by horror author Yvette Tan and illustrated by design studio Team Manila. It was the first NFT book to be launched at the 2021 Frankfurt Book Fair, the oldest book fair in the world. Created for the official Philippine booth of the National Book Development Board, it’s also the country’s first government-commissioned NFT.

Yaptinchay is one of several people in the tech and creative industries who moved to the surf town of San Juan, La Union, over the last year. Just a few hours north of metro Manila, La Union was, in its pre-pandemic days, a lively getaway destination filled with weekend surfing tourists. During the pandemic, La Union became a haven for digital nomads and remote workers, but it especially proved to be an eat-surf-code-repeat paradise for startup founders and crypto kids.

Buenaventura, Dizon, Coins.ph founder Ron Hose, PayMongo co-founder Luis Sia, artificial intelligence expert Carlo Almendral and Xendit Managing Director Yang Yang Zhang are some of the individuals who have either transplanted themselves or temporarily hunkered down in the coastal town to take advantage of the high internet speeds and easy access to outdoor activities like surfing and mountain biking.

Joncy Sumulong, the owner of the iconic Flotsam and Jetsam Hostel, took to calling the area Silicon Surf because of the nascent tech scene he was witnessing. “You don’t have to be in Palo Alto to make things happen,” he says. “The pandemic sped up the decentralization of the tech industry, and La Union is a recipient of this reverse urbanization.”

While fintech entrepreneurs benefited from the shift, the rolling lockdowns and tourist ban were a death knell for the livelihoods of the locals who depended on tourism. “We saw firsthand the effect of the pandemic on the surfing community,” says Yaptinchay. “Since we were already talking about crypto and NFTs with friends, we thought there might be a way to use technology to make their lives more pandemic-proof.” LUSCCares, the initiative that emerged from these conversations, is an NFT project that aims to raise funds for the La Union Surf Club, the long-running grassroots organization of surf instructors that looks out for the needs of the community.

The Philippines’ rapid uptake of crypto in the last year, primarily by way of play-to-earn gaming, is not entirely surprising given that among Asia-Pacific countries, it spends the most amount of time online. As more people discover how the blockchain can be used to shake up traditional industries, the market is only going to grow larger. “The Philippines is at a very interesting inflection point in its crypto journey,” says Buenaventura. “It has minted new millionaires, put Filipino artists on a global stage, created new avenues for fundraising and fundamentally changed the meaning of work and play.”

“And it’s happening right here in this little surf town,” says Sumulong. “It all happened very organically.” Although the Philippines has yet to open its borders to international digital nomads, there’s already enough of a homegrown technopreneurial scene on the archipelago’s 7,641 islands to say that the Philippines will be the next digital sandbox of the post-pandemic era.

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