MEKONG Quilts is just one of the many handicraft shops dotted along Siem Reap’s bustling main thoroughfare, Sivutha Boulevard.
But what makes Mekong Quilts stand out from the rest is that it’s the retail arm of the NGO Mekong Plus, and it purveys fine, original, high-end craft work instead of cheap and shoddy souvenir items.
Its mission is to provide employment to rural women, not only in Cambodia but also in Vietnam.
Indeed, the enterprise began in 2001 as Vietnam Quilts. Sovanny Chan, manager of the Siem Reap outlet, says: “We started under the name Vietnam Quilts because we didn’t think we could expand beyond Vietnam.”
But shortly afterwards, the organisation did expand its reach into Cambodia, specifically with women in the province of Svey Rieng.
This step was instigated by the ‘‘parent’’ French and Belgium NGO, Mekong Plus.
In 2009, the decision was made to change the name to Mekong Quilts and further expand the Cambodian arm, with retail outlets being opened in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
The NGO employs 76 women in five villages and four communes in the Rum Dual district of Svey Rieng province, and there are plans to expand this workforce.
Mekong Quilts has a sister NGO called Mekong Creations that manufactures, among other things, papier mache items made from recycled newspapers and water-hyacinth purses. All these items can be purchased in the Mekong Quilts shop.
Sovanny Chan says: “We provide training to the women and, after three to six months, they are able to produce some products that we are able to sell in the shops. The work has to pass with perfect quality. We have experienced teachers who come from Vietnam as well as foreign volunteers.”
The quilts are made from 100 per cent cotton or silk.
The material is first washed, then cut into pieces for the specific quilt design. Then the women assemble the materials. Everything, including the sewing, is done by hand.
Finally, if the quilt is cotton, it is washed again to make sure the colours do not run. “Quality is really the priority,” Sovanny Chan says.
Retail prices for the quilts range from US$150 to US$316 for a king-size silk quilt.
The money that is generated from the store goes back into Mekong Plus and provides funds for more women to gain employment. Agricultural pursuits are also supported.
Mekong Plus also provides loans and technical support, and has a micro-credit program.
Women who want to be employed by the NGO and take advantage of the many benefits must pledge to use part of their income to improve the long-term life of their families.
Sovanny Chan says: “We choose women who have some experience in sewing and make less than one dollar a day. After the woman joins the group, she must commit to something like sending her child to school or she can’t stay in the group.
“The purpose of her working is to provide employment, support her family, and make sure that if she has children, they receive an education.”
A dental training program is also in place because, as Sovanny Chan says, “Poverty comes from people always being sick and not being able to get out of their poverty cycle.
“People need to be aware of health and sanitation.”