A Vision-driven Leader for Bagong Lipa
BY LISA MORENO
From being a public servant in his youth to mayor of a major city, Eric Africa has stood by his values of camaraderie, compassion, and love for his hometown. Through each program and policy throughout his terms as mayor, he remains driven by a loving vision of a truly healthy, transparent, debt-free government for generations to come.
THE MAYOR'S POLITICAL JOURNEY
Africa’s passion for public service may have been influenced by his having both parents in government—his mother was a court stenographer, while his father was a budget officer for the city. But he did not take public office seriously at first.
His first foray into public service was in his early 20s, when he served as a member of their barangay’s Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) in 1996. “It felt like the SK was just like a game, like we were just a group of friends who formed a group,” he recalls, adding how it was during his time with the SK that he saw many things lacking in their community and that there was only a limited number of things he could do.
“Perhaps my inspiration to seek a higher position is so that I can help a wider range of people, at least.” However, his tenure as SK member was short-lived because he was chosen as the youngest executive assistant at the time by then Mayor Ruben Umali.
He then served as councilor for four terms and as vice mayor for two terms. In 2007, he joined the Nacionalista Party under then-Senator Manny Villar. In 2019, he was elected mayor of Lipa City, a victory that he counts as his proudest moment so far. He won in all 72 barangays and all 333 precincts—proof, according to him, that the people love his kind of service.
PARTICIPATORY LEADERSHIP THROUGH TOUGH TIMES
Africa admits that the events of 2020 caught him off guard, just like the others. He recalls that they were caught unprepared by the Taal Volcano eruption in January. Their city was preparing for its fiesta at the time, and when disaster struck, Lipa opened its doors to nearly 30,000 displaced individuals from neighboring municipalities. “As much as possible, the city government helps whoever seeks help,” Africa stresses.
Though the eruption caught them off guard, they did have time to prepare for the initial effects of the pandemic because of the advance information from the Department of Health (DOH) about a positive case in Metro Manila.
They used this headstart wisely. They convened the local health board, and then the barangays. Thus, when the lockdown was announced, Lipa was ready. By the time the first quarantines were announced, they already had isolation facilities. Later on, when the COVID-19 vaccines were made available, Lipa worked hard to vaccinate as many residents as they could, including those from neighboring cities and municipalities. They were so dedicated to this goal that they reached up to 7,000 vaccinations per day, which eventually led to a commendation for having the highest percentage of vaccinations in the Calabarzon region.
They were also prepared when the African swine fever (ASF) hit the country. While Lipa was not spared from ASF, their city was the first to recover in the entire Philippines. The Department of Agriculture (DA) followed Lipa’s executive order, which served as a template for other regions of the country. Africa proudly shares that some other countries, including Germany, have adopted the countermeasures their local government took to stop the spread of ASF.
For his second term, Africa’s clear focus will be the city's healthcare system. His administration will be introducing four hospital systems—Lipa City Hospital System 1, 2, 3, and 4—a move that is in line with his priority of serving their senior population more efficiently. According to Africa, 98 percent of senior citizens in Lipa have been receiving pensions since 2019. The first hospital system focuses on geriatrics, medical, and surgery; the second on pediatrics and obstetrics; the third on renal dialysis and other specialty centers; and finally, the fourth hospital system on laboratory, industrial, and diagnostic services.
He hopes that, with this organized system, residents can avoid confusion and inconvenience. Aside from this, they are in the process of putting up three super health centers, which aim to decongest their existing health centers. And to provide better healthcare, they will also be launching the Lipa Family Health Card.
With the family health card, Lipa residents can access healthcare services from private institutions even if they lack the necessary funds. This will address the issue of private hospitals requiring a deposit before admitting patients, particularly in emergency situations. Once awarded to qualified families, the city government will ensure that the budget is available as a deposit so that those in need of medical care can receive treatment without delay. To further boost health care for the next generation, Africa’s administration offered a new choice for students looking to join the field of healthcare —the College of Allied Medicine in Kolehiyo ng Lipa (College of Lipa). A locally funded school, it offers healthcare courses, like nursing, medical technology, radiologic technology, and midwifery.
Aside from healthcare, one of the programs Africa is very enthusiastic about is their Trash-to-Cash program. This, he shares, is the program closest to his heart at the moment.
More than 30,000 households participated in this program, which had a significant impact on the environment and provided people with means of subsistence. People accrue points by collecting trash and redeeming them for groceries or appliances. This has considerably decreased the amount of waste hauled in the city, and the residents of Lipa are learning how to recycle.
Bettering how locals live in their city, of course, starts with having a good home. Hence, the pabahay (housing) program is one of the key programs under Africa's leadership. This, he notes, was made possible through donations from nongovernment organizations (NGOs), the private sector, and businessmen. For now, there are more than 200 units built out of the 645 target units in a five-hectare land area in Bulacnin, Lipa City.
Currently, there are 29 occupants who came from the Pamintahan River. The city government did not spend money on building units. They were all donated by NGOs, businessmen, and private groups. Each unit costs Php180,000 to Php200,000. And the Lipa government’s assistance did not end there. They’ve also given these relocated families a form of livelihood. Every month, there are also different livelihood programs that help upskill and empower relocated families, such as sewing and bead-making training.
“They say it changed their life completely. They never thought in their wildest dreams that they would be living in a subdivision,” relays Africa. He also describes how some of Lipa’s residents have approached him to say that it’s not just their place of residence that has changed, but their entire lifestyle. Having a new home in a nice place inspired them to pursue a more dignified way of living. “Tumaas talaga yung pagtingin nila sa kanilang sarili (Their self-esteem really improved).”
He is now focusing on convincing the informal settlers who have called the cemetery home for generations to leave the place, and a way of life that they have grown accustomed to. Many of these families make and sell candles within the cemetery grounds, for instance.
Once these people are relocated from the cemetery, the city government will form a cooperative. Africa explains that they will provide livelihood through the cooperative. The members of the cooperative will be urged to make coffins as supplies for the city government’s funeral assistance to indigents. So instead of buying from private funeral homes, the city government of Lipa will purchase coffins from the cooperative. Africa explains the cooperative can import materials from Pampanga, roughly amounting to Php3,500, then the city government will purchase the finished coffins from them at Php15,000 a piece. This way, they are assured of an income because it is the city government which purchases the coffins. The city government, according to Africa, allocates Php7 million for free coffins annually. The government of Lipa also offers free cremation and burial assistance, aside from free coffins.
A PROUD LIPEÑO THROUGH AND THROUGH
When asked who inspires him, Africa confesses there is no particular one that comes to mind. His leadership style, which he describes as "participatory leadership and leadership by example," is the product of the best qualities he tries to adopt as much as possible and undesirable qualities he seeks to avoid.
“Kayang-kaya basta sama-sama (If we work together, everything is possible),” Africa says. This is what he has reiterated during public engagements. And this kinship with the people of Lipa is what drives him, being a true blue Lipeño himself. “I am showing the people that, as an elected mayor, I’m doing my best to serve them.”
Born and raised in Lipa, he completed his studies—until the graduate level—in Batangas. This has been a source of pride but has also posed certain challenges. “I’ve been in government service for a long time, 25 years, so I know almost everyone, but sometimes, we introduce changes and we need to replace people, and I find it a little difficult to explain to them that this is what’s needed,” he confesses.
Objectivity must also come into play, for instance, when reviewing the waning performance of some departments, especially the income-generating ones. At times like these, he needs to put on his mayor hat and forego being steered by any history to make difficult decisions, like replacing employees. This has proven fruitful so far, as he shared that there was an instance where they saw a 1,000-percent increase in revenue performance.
There were reports that corruption cases were filed against Africa and seven other officials—a move that he claimed to be a demolition job. The report came out in 2022 and he was admittedly taken aback by it.
“I only saw it on Facebook and read it in tabloids, and it’s widely known throughout Lipa, but I haven’t received any summons from the Ombudsman,” he reveals. He then recounted how he sought to get a copy of the complaint for four years to clarify things, but so far, he has only been given a certificate stating that there are "no pending cases" against him—both criminal and administrative. “Anyway, if ever I do have one, I’m more than willing to answer.”
Though ready to enlighten those who have accused him of corruption, he remains steadfast in wanting to focus all of his energy on serving the people because he does not want to waste his efforts on the “issue.” Through it all, he is grateful for the support and understanding of his wife, Rowena Sombrano-Africa, or Weng as he fondly calls her. The two met when they were part of SK, but worked more closely together in 1998 as members of the sangguniang panglungsod (city council). Her wife, according to the mayor, understands his job because she was also involved in politics as city councilor alongside him in 1998, and she also became a member of the provincial board for four terms. Weng, he describes, is a very loving wife and mother to their eight children.
THE FUTURE OF LIPA
With his loving wife and eight children supporting him, Africa is looking ahead to a bright future for all Lipeños. The heart of Lipa will be their new city hall, which will be ready for occupancy by 2025. It was designed and commissioned by BUDJI+ROYAL, the architecture firm behind some of the most iconic structures in the country, renowned for its showcase for the Philippine Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. Once completed, it will be the largest city hall in the country.
But his vision extends beyond making it an office for public servants. The focus of the site will be a lush park where everyone can converge and find community.
His dreams for Lipa are many, but most of them involve uplifting the community’s way of life and their ability to welcome everyone into their beautiful city.
In partnership with 6th District of Batangas Congressman Ralph G. Recto, their strong local and national partnership helps Lipa even more in its programs. "I am thankful to Congressman Recto for his great help,” Africa says.
One of his biggest dreams, the mayor shares, is to be able to put up a sports complex that would be able to host local events like the Palarong Pambansa or even international competitions. Negotiations with the lot donors are currently ongoing, but the city government has the budget prepared; they just need to choose a site. Since Lipa is the center of Calabarzon, they want a location that is easily accessible in case they become the host of a sports event in the future.
Through all the projects and programs, he wants to make sure the next Lipa administration can start with a clean slate and that everything they need for the continuity of good governance will already be set up. He guarantees that Lipa will be debt-free by 2024 as a result. When he took office, there was quite a hefty debt because of various loans, which he proudly shares they are prioritizing thanks to their belt-tightening measures.
“The city government of Lipa, when I came in, was deeply in debt. So that was my battle cry during the election: ‘Rise, Lipa!’ In the past four years, we tried our best to pay off the loan from the previous administration,” he reveals. He started in 2019 when they implemented belt-tightening measures in the city. When he assumed office, they did not fill up the vacant positions because he noticed that the city hall was overstaffed. Then, they reduced allocations for fuel, travel, seminars, and supplies. They made changes to save and then used all the savings to pay off loans.
According to him, they were able to carry out projects and programs while paying off their debts. Lipa’s revenue increased from Php1.7 billion when he took over as mayor in 2019 by 65 percent, or Php2.7 billion. “So we can see that money is now flowing into the city government,” Africa proudly shares.
He further explains that when he took office, there were Php555 million in disallowances from the Commission on Audit (COA). “In my four years as mayor, we have had no COA disallowances, COA findings, or even an audit observation memo (AOM). So maybe, as far as COA is concerned, with no mistakes on our part and the increase in income flowing into the city, that could be enough basis to assure our fellow citizens that we are using the city’s funds responsibly,” remarks Africa. “But what I really wanted was to finish it. I want the next administration not to experience what I went through as mayor. I want them to start with a clean slate when they take office, without any debts, and everything set up.”
Every day is a new challenge, so he “lives in the moment,” learning to adapt to any given situation. All the while, he remains humbled by and grateful for the people’s trust. “To the people of Lipa, thank you. I am grateful. I wouldn’t be able to do my job as mayor without your full trust and confidence in me.”
It’s the spirit of camaraderie and love for his hometown that has defined Africa's years in public service, and it will continue to be the driving force of his journey for many years to come. “Lipa City is sincerely in my heart,” he says in closing. “I truly love Lipa not only for politics and governance. No words can describe how much I love my city.