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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Artisans carve a lovely bunch of coconuts

Artisans carve a lovely bunch of coconuts

The Coconut Project in Kep teaches rural young people to make, market

unique jewellery and craft items using simple coconut shells

MICHAEL KOHAN

From Christmas tree ornaments to earrings, each item produced by the Coconut Project is crafted by hand.

IN a small room in the rural village of

Chamkea Bei in Kep municipality, a group of young people are carving

out a niche in the handicraft market through a unique community

development project.

Each morning, in this "coconut shell" room in the Chamka Bei

Vocational Training Centre, earrings, necklaces and other jewellery (as

well as Christmas decorations) are meticulously crafted by hand using

coconut shell. The process is a lengthy one as the makers go through

about eight different stages of filing, sawing and sanding to get to

the finished product.

The results are natural, eco-friendly products made entirely from sustainable resources. 

"They start with the coconut husk, file and cut the hair away and

then glue the design on and cut around with a hand saw," says Antonia

Marison, founder of Khmer Creations, one of the organisations behind

the initiative. "The piece is then sanded with up to six different

grades of sandpaper and polished with coconut oil to finish. It usually

takes between two to four hours to complete one piece.

Shell gain

"Every piece is different and unique - no two pieces

are alike. What I also like about them is that they are not

machine-manufactured or perfect, which adds to their individuality,"

Marison added. "In order for this project to be a successful and

sustainable enterprise, the quality of our products is paramount."

The Coconut Project was created through a partnership of Khmer

Creations and Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia (BABSEA) under the

Hand in Hand integrated community development project.

The idea behind the intiative, said Marison, was to provide young

villagers with a marketable skill that would eventually lead to

sustainable economic self-sufficiency.

"We identified handicrafts as an area where there was a genuine

interest from villagers, especially the youth, as well as a burgeoning

market," she said.

To help get the project off the ground, a jewellery designer was

brought from Japan by Khmer Creations to train the young people in

jewellery production and provide design consulting. She came up with

"Khmer-focused" designs and carried out a three-week intensive training

program with 10 local youth.

MICHAEL KOHAN

Young members of the Coconut Project holds up sample products.

The workshop participants were selected from among the poorest

young people in the village, most of whom had previously worked as

subsistence farmers. While the participants were enthusiastic and eager

to learn, their families were initially perplexed at what their

children were doing playing with coconut shells during rice-planting

season, said Marison.

It was only when they began to sell their

handicrafts back to Khmer Creations and to hotels in Kep that the

community began to value this seemingly waste material.

"Jewellery making is a skill that anyone can acquire after some

training and it is empowering for the artisans," said Marison. "They

take a lot of pride in their work, particularly when they see the

finished product."

In the initial stages, the Coconut Project is trying to sell

locally in markets in Kep and Kampot as well as encourage people to

come down to visit the workshop where they can purchase the goods. They

have also begun selling their jewellery at the Friends flea market held

in Phnom Penh every month, and Khmer Creations is currently approaching

international fair-trade buyers for the Christmas decorations.

Every piece is

different and unique – no two pieces are alike.”

"We had a great response to the jewellery at the last Friends flea

market, and in particular to the Christmas decorations.  There is a

huge market out there for ethical Christmas decorations and now is the

time to start tapping into that market. People always like to see

something different and have what no one else has."

Learning a business

"Once they have enough orders they will work

independently. A percentage will go back to the project to buy

equipment like the saw blades which are imported from Germany but

available in Phnom Penh. Also, in the future, once BABSEA has phased

out management of the vocational training centre, the artisans will be

required to pay rent for the workshop space ensuring that vital funds

to go back into the community." 
BABSEA will continue to recruit trainees for the coconut project

according to market demand for the products. They will be trained by

the first group, allowing them the opportunity to pass on the skills

they have learned.

"By supporting this project, we will be giving young people in Chamka Bei a new perspective on small businesses," said Marison.

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