EVERY three months about 1000 hand-made rugs sewn together by Poipet families out of colourful fabric off-cuts depart Sihanoukville on pallets in a cargo ship bound for Australia.
On arrival the brightly coloured rugs are sold for up to US$200 by a network of volunteers at local markets around the country, with the profits from sales helping to support the 41 families involved in the Carpets for Communities NGO.
Founded by Adelaide man David Bacon in 2005, Carpets for Communities provides a monthly income ranging between $66 and $120 per month for families involved in the scheme who work at home stitching together rugs ranging in size from small bath mats to larger custom orders covering whole rooms.
The rugs are stitched using a painstaking “latch hook” method where pieces of tightly rolled fabric, usually old t-shirts from garment factories in Phnom Penh, are crocheted into hessian sacks.
The end result resembles a plush-fabric echidna, with the closely knitted layers of the rug sticking out at all angles and forming a durable and visually appealing protective surface for the hessian below.
In a 2005 blog post Smith said he started the project after making several trips to the Cambodian border near Poipet to extend his visa and being amazed at the hardships experienced by local families deriving an income from cross-border trade or seasonal work in Thailand.
“My main idea was to try and help the children I had befriended to have proper education and eventually access some of the opportunities I have had. So I simply put two and two together and decided to try and help the parents or families earn money so that the children no longer needed to beg.”
Smith and a group of friends and donors in Australia settled on home-made rugs as the solution, and provided start-up capital and technical assistance to a small group of local mothers.
Eventually they grew into a committed group of 41 families each capable of producing a rug in one to three days depending on its size.
While in the beginning the process went smoothly, with carpets flying into buyers’ hand, Carpets for Communities eventually hit a wall with too many carpets being produced for a market that simply wasn’t big enough.
Carpets for Communities project development officer Clay Nayton, told The Phnom Penh Post that the situation reached crisis point early this year when $200,000 in stock lay unsold in the garages and homes of volunteers around Australia.
“We realised we outgrew the market and better start imposing production controls if we want this model to be sustainable. The next step is to start selling the carpets further afield than Australia, including in retail outlets in Singapore and the US.” Another step taken was to diversify the Carpets for Communities product range, which led to Australian jewellery designer Ju Ju Harfawi joining the organisation in November 2010 as a product design manager.
“We want to start expanding into an overall home wares range including things like cushion covers and children’s rugs which gives us more varied products for export but still lets the families use the same skills they’ve learned,” she said.
Harfawi said that two families working in the program will switch from making rugs to jewellery next week as part of a plan to cut costs by selling more products locally.
“My goal is to bring the business back to Cambodia and make it self-sustainable, selling jewellery especially in a market like Siem Reap with so many tourists coming through would do really well.”
Clay Nayton said Carpets for Communities employs six local staff to manage warehouse spaces in Poipet and liaise with families involved in the program, while 10 volunteers in Siem Reap provide administrative support and work on marketing and product development.
“We’ve started negotiations with retail outlets overseas including IKEA. Other groups like Oxfam have expressed interest in the past but we didn’t have the quantities they needed to supply all their shops. We do now.”