Which Way Is Fair Trade Headed? Cambodian Local Manager Samnang’s Perspective

Ms. Kang Sok Samnang, the General Manager of Khmer Creations

In the era that charity shifts to business, what would be the new challenge for organizations involved in Fair Trade, what are they currently struggling about, and what would be the perspective of local managers in such a situation?

Khmer Creations is a social enterprise driven by an economic goal to succeed as a sustainable and viable business, and social goal to empower Khmer women through financial independence and life skills. Ms. Kang Sok Samnang (34), the General Manager of Khmer Creations, told us that she did not know much about Fair Trade but just wanted to help other people when she first joined the team.

There are always ups and downs in business, but what has she learned through the process of “doing business”, and what’s her challenge to be involved with staffs who have complicated social and family backgrounds? Samnang gave us an interesting and down-to-earth insight on the perception of Fair Trade as a local manager dedicated to such an organization.

Yusi: Could you tell us what does Khmer Creations do?

Samnang: We started in the middle of 2007 focusing on jewelry and women with another NGO. The NGO focused on taking girls out from the sexual industry, and then Khmer Creations offered a place for them to stay and work. Our company was founded as a small project by a British volunteer. She was volunteering at a shelter for trafficked women and children in Cambodia and learned the devastating situation of them. She decided to remain in the country and do something. She teamed up with an Australian designer, which gave birth to the concept of Khmer Creations. Although the founders both live overseas now, we have Skype meeting every week.

Now we expanded our target to help more women in various needs mainly through creating jobs. Some of our staffs were asked to relocate from their homes, and some were not provided with enough benefit at their previous jobs. Here, we’ve got many protections such as 24-hour accident insurance, day care for mothers and space for the kids, and a saving scheme to help the women to manage their finances better besides a fair wage.

What’s your role in the team?

I succeeded the project as a General Manager, and it’s been eight years now. My daily task is to manage all the staffs here and teach them new techniques and try some new strategies to expand our market. The team has 11 members including myself, our three founders and other workers. When I started, the only thing I knew was that I had a good sewing and craft skills so I could adapt to the team very fast. I started sewing and learning crochet from 15. I can make my dress and make dresses for others.

From 15 years old? Could you tell us more about your childhood?

The childhood of Samnang

I played like a boy. I was just a child without any womanhood. Haha
 I liked the competition and thought if others can do it, I can do it too. I followed whatever things my brother did, though I probably lost that habit as I grew up.

Can it come from the social pressure?

Could be. My parents also raised me up with the accordance to our culture. The first time I went to the Philippines in 2004 for a volunteer trip, I was shocked that women could shake hands with guys, which is not common in Cambodia. Haha
 I started realizing that there are differences in cultures by seeing the world outside.

Samnang, six years old at her hometown

I wasn’t smart at school but was very good at handicrafts. In Khmer Creations, though, everyone is a designer. We run a design workshop and contest every 3–6 months and see if there are any new ideas. In our catalog, you can see some designs are mine and some are our staffs’, and some are from our professional designer who is one of the founders of Khmer Creations. The team also takes part in modeling in the catalog, so everyone is involved.

Many products are made from silk. Khmer Creations also order certain equipment from other social enterprises that are involved with disabled people.

Circumstances surrounding Fair Trade Organizations and Women in Cambodia

It’s very cool that everyone has a chance to send out their products to the world!

We learned that the human trafficking issue is decreasing in Cambodia. Do you feel it’s true?

I don’t think so. On the surface, you may see it’s decreasing, but if you look at it closely, it’s still a serious issue that goes on. The modern society keeps trying to “adapt”, and trafficking doesn’t only happen at night. At a glance, the rate may have dropped. But to my knowledge, I feel it could have even gone up. Sometimes, the target can be children at school. When you drive around schools or some areas, you may observe that something is wrong. It’s not abduction… but it’s like “why that girl has to go with that guy?”

What do you think about Fair Trade?

I have to say that I didn’t know much about the idea at first, but I’ve always dreamed to become a social worker since when I was 15 years old. I used to be a part-time career consultant and held workshops for job training as a teacher before. Then I wanted to find a full-time job to better support my family and a job that would also allow me to better express my will to help. I learned a lot after coming here. Most of our staffs had a poor background and worked with us for quite long. They were recruited from an area called “Stung Meanchey,” which is known as a trash dump site. We want to provide them with a nicer state of life. I have learned about how hard life is without education and dealing with complicated social issues.

What was the biggest challenge for you through the process of helping others and run the store as a General Manager?

The biggest challenge is that we are not business persons. Although I have the skills for crafts and making jewelry, doing business is another thing. I have to say that we didn’t plan enough in advance, but we are trying to get up.

Indeed, it is hard especially when you are paying a fair wage and have to compete with others in different aspects such as designs.

Yes. Also, what I learned the most is the importance of communication. Without communication, it’s tough to find new customers, and I felt the necessity consider more about marketing. For the first four years, we were very sustainable. We could provide all the welfare to our staffs purely based on the revenue generated from the sales of our products. However, for the last few years, we are struggling to find more wholesales buyers. It’s a challenge for my job because I don’t know much about business. But of course, we are trying very hard to find more partners and would like to expand both our Cambodian and overseas market.

Samnang, at work

It’s paradoxical, but I think the consumer conscious is leaning towards ethical products more than before. A few years ago, people probably didn’t know much about the issues behind the project like yours, and when they learned about them, they are urged to contribute in whatever ways they could. Nowadays, an increasing number of organizations started to involve in and the idea to help disadvantaged people through handicrafts has less impact than before.

Yes. When we started, the project grew very fast, and we were quite successful even without any business professionals because there were not many competitors outside.

I believe it is a good thing as whole, though. I hope Fair Trade can be a standard in every society one day so that every worker can earn enough to better their livelihood and give more support to their families.

Lastly, when do you feel satisfied with your job and what’s your future vision for Khmer Creations?

Obviously, I’m satisfied when we could sell a lot. Haha Also, when our staffs can get alone with each other without any issues, when we can provide them with enough care and what they want from us, and when our clients are happy with the jewelry they received. Still, it’s very challenging for me as a woman to manage a social enterprise because our staffs have a lot of problems in their home lives.

My role requires managing a business while advising them on how to solve their personal problems. Since I started working with them, I involved deeply not only in business but also with their family issues. What I found is that being a female manager could be harder than a male manager because there are too many emotional attachments.

The staffs are like my family, and I can’t close my eyes to their problems when I notice something is wrong. My vision for Khmer Creations is that our staff grow and become more independent and that we work with more women in the community to lead them from poverty into a bright future.

Message from Samnang to students seeking their future path

Don’t give up your dream if you have one. When I started working with Khmer Creation, I really wanted to give up because there were so many troubles not only in business but also in management. Although we’ve been struggling for the past three years, as the leader of the team, I have to be strong to talk and guide our staffs. We are not a big enterprise, but we are happy with what we are now. I want to tell the young generation, if you have a dream, follow your heart and do what you like and make it a right choice. You will also provide a bright future for other people on your way, who are waiting to meet you.

With an excellent sewing skill, Samnang became the General Manager of Khmer Creations, hence leading the all-female, all-Cambodian team stepping towards a brighter future. She is not only in charge of the business side but is also a great supporter for staffs who share difficult social backgrounds.
 Initially, Khmer Creations was established by three British ladies who were concerned with the human trafficking issue in Cambodia. Now the company is managed and staffed by Khmer women living in Phnom Penh. It manufactures and wholesales a unique range of jewelry, generating skills and viable incomes for the staff. The jewelry is exported to Europe, North America and Australia and stock a number of boutiques in Cambodia.

Profile of Samnang

With an excellent sewing skill, Samnang became the General Manager of Khmer Creations, hence leading the all-female, all-Cambodian team stepping towards a brighter future. She is not only in charge of the business side but is also a great supporter for staffs who share difficult social backgrounds. 
Initially, Khmer Creations was established by a British lady and an Australia lady who were concerned with the human trafficking issue in Cambodia. Now the company is managed and staffed by Khmer women living in Phnom Penh. It manufactures and wholesales a unique range of jewelry, generating skills and viable incomes for the staff. The jewelry is exported to Europe, North America and Australia and stock a number of boutiques in Cambodia.

Khmer Creations Store “Cambodian Creations”

Business Hours: 09:30–19:00
Address: Alleyway of St. 240, Phnom Phen, Cambodia
Tel: +855–97–522–3043
HP: www.khmercreations.org
Facebook: khmercreations
Instagram: @khmer_creations
*Cambodian Creations run by Khmer Creations and other two businesses

Interviewer’s Note

I really appreciate Samnang for sharing the current challenge of Khmer Creations because it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the importance of “business skills” even the ultimate goal is a “social” one. Samnang does not only have the responsibility to maintain a sustainable revenue model for the organization but also play an advisory role to help improve the lives of other staffs. I believe that with her out-going personality, care for the staff and her radiant smile, Khmer Creations will reach the breakthrough very soon!


Originally published at conpath.net on May 1, 2017.