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Getting businesses off the ground

Men Sinoeun, director of the Artisans’ Association of Cambodia
Men Sinoeun, director of the Artisans’ Association of Cambodia, holds a locally sourced and hand-woven basket at the Artisans d’Angkor boutique in Phnom Penh last week. HONG MENEA

Getting businesses off the ground

Sales of handicraft products in Cambodia can help create jobs and contribute to the country’s booming tourism industry.

But merchants still need help in bringing their products to the market at large. Enter Artisans’ Association of Cambodia, or AAC.

Established in 2001, the AAC is a nonprofit organisation supporting more than 2,000 handicraft workers, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“We have so many uneducated and poor people in Cambodia, especially in the countryside, and they could just find a job in the business market,” said Men Sinouen, executive director of the AAC.

But “helping them to operate their small business is one of the main objectives of our association”.

“People may have knowledge in making the products, but they don’t have channels to sell. The products may be nicely made, but they don’t have marketing skills for promotion.”

The AAC is working with more than 50 handicraft groups or NGOs, all of which have access to training and workshops as part of membership in the organisation.

Member Villageworks Songkhem, established by a Singapore-based charity in 2001, sells mainly silk and small accessories made from recycled materials.

Norm Bunak, general manager of Villageworks, said profits grew after joining up with the organisation.

“The AAC provided training for product design, marketing and promotion skills, and also helped us to find buyers and channels for selling our products,” she said.

Villageworks is one of the larger members of the group, with more than 200 workers. They started from a small community in the Baray district of Kampong Thom province, and have branched out to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and even Singapore.

“For us it’s just the beginning,” she said.

Different handicraft products, including handmade bamboo and cane benches, lotus-made decorative items, silk products and traditional Khmer attire, can all be found in their shops. Export markets include Vietnam, Thailand and China.

Sinouen said the vision is to one day have handicraft groups and workers leave the AAC and branch out on their own in the private sector.

But as social enterprises, their growth is inherently limited. As Sinouen concedes: “I’m not telling them to compete or get market shares from other big retailing shops.”

The businesses, however, are not focused solely on profits. AAC wants to improve the lives of workers, train them up and build confidence.