In Cambodia, young entrepreneurs are turning to the social network as a place to make a steady income.
Sokun Roth has recently had his primary means of income cut off, thanks to an online complaint.
The 28-year-old is pursuing a modelling career, but says he can make up to $1,000 per month by selling products on a public Facebook page, Cambodian Fancy Design. Until this week, that is. Roth hasn’t been able to access his business and his page is down.
He says that he thinks it was blocked, likely because he was posting photos of sex toys for sale. In the past, people have been prosecuted in Cambodia for selling dildos and traditional aphrodisiacs – often Chinese imports – on pornography charges.
Now, he is worried. “I have to pay for my rent, and for my children who live with me,” he says.
Roth is a member of a growing class of online sellers peddling all sorts of personal-care items, and not just illicit ones. On Facebook, there are hundreds of pages offering weight-loss products, high-quality cosmetics and – more than anything else – skin-whitening creams.
Over the past few years, enterprising entrepreneurs have started to view social media as ripe for business: It is pervasive, with thousands of potential customers just a click away.
Many of them are quite young. Ouk Sinuch, 20, says she quit her job as a cashier to sell lotions, soaps, skin-whitening creams and make-up she gets from Thailand on her Facebook page.
“All of my customers are young people and they know my Facebook page,” she says. “I have the technique to talk with my customers.”
Huy Chhing, 24, runs a Facebook business with a team of 10 people selling jewellery and cosmetics boxes and other home-storage items. Her business, dubbed Elegant Brand KH, brings in up to $15,000 in profit each month. This year, they were able to open a brick-and-mortar display room for customers.
“People are starting to trust [products] from online, because we try to make it high-quality,” she says.
This week, several women sat around a table in Chhing’s office typing rapidly on their laptops. The adjoining rooms were filled with shipping packages and shelves full of brightly coloured products.
Everything is imported directly from a supplier in China, she says.
The business has experienced rapid growth – the Facebook page went viral – and Chhing thinks the profits will keep growing, too. Her customers come from all over Cambodia.
“We’ve observed that online sellers have increased. People are on Facebook in Cambodia,” she says. “For Phnom Penh customers, we can get money directly, and customers in the provinces send it through the bank or through Wing.”
But Chhing has also observed the risks, both for consumers and sellers. Sometimes, sellers don’t get their money, and other times, customers are on the receiving end of a scam.
The Ministry of Commerce has taken note of the growth in the online industry as well as the risks, according to spokesperson Soeng Sophary.
The Facebook market, so to speak, is currently completely unregulated and un-taxed. The ministry is in the process of drafting an e-commerce law that aims to protect buyers and sellers and buyers.
Sophary says there is no current record of the number of online businesses in Cambodia, but she recognises their impact.
“E-commerce is not a [physical space] where we can see each other conducting trade,” she says. “E-commerce has no border. Anything we require, we can purchase immediately via computer.”
It is exactly that lack of regulation that has enabled some of Cambodia’s Facebook entrepreneurs, though. Many, like Sinuch, use their pages to advertise informally imported products purchased from around the region.
And sellers like Roth use the medium to peddle more dubious products that escape regulation. In addition to the sex toys – which he says he sells so men don’t seek sexual services outside the home – this week, Roth was advertising a “serum” that purported to make women want to have more sex.
The description – odourless, colourless – makes it read like a date-rape drug. He claims that it is simply an aphrodisiac. “It does not make the user unconscious,” Roth says. “It just helps them to feel better.”
Like most of the products sold on Facebook, Roth’s seem to have a target audience. “The people buying the sex serum are the young people, less than 25 years old,” he says.
“[Mine] are different from the products that they sell at the market. They don’t cause harm.”