A bag-making enterprise run by HIV-positive women looks to stand on its own
At the moment, the biggest challenge for the company is finding new markets.
After a little more than two-and-a-half years in operation, a couple of new markets are the only hurdles left for a Phnom Penh bag-manufacturing enterprise struggling to stand on its own two feet.
The Modern Dress Sewing Factory, which despite its name designs, markets and sells bags, was started in 2007 to provide livelihoods to women living with HIV, and to prove that people living with the virus could be productive members of the community.
The factory was initially a business unit of the Cambodian People Living with HIV/AIDS Network (CPN+), said business manager Panh Srim. "The majority of women living with HIV in Cambodia are jobless," she said. "That's why we came together to set up this factory and make an income to support our families."
Moving beyond aid
The company was launched with technical expertise and startup funds from the UN Development Programme and the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), a Thai-based NGO, and still relies on them for loans for unforeseen expenses. But the objective has always been to develop into a self-sustaining business, she said.
The factory produces about 300 bags a month, usually finding buyers for nearly 80 percent of output.
In Phnom Penh, its bags are sold in Colours of Cambodia, Friends International and White Lotus, but Marketing Manager Pel Sreyneth said the international market is very important, as are bulk orders for conference bags.
The majority of the factory's sales and revenues are from bulk orders, she said, such as the recent order from Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, or APN+, for 600 bags to supply a conference in Bangkok.
Internationally, the company's bags are sold in PDA's store in the Thai capital, and it is negotiating to sell bags through a store in the UN compound in Bangkok. It also retails through Tragooon, a Japanese retail outlet selling ethical clothing and accessories.
The group was looking to grow organically by developing new markets in and outside Cambodia, but Pel Sreyneth said the handicrafts sector remains tough, with many organisations producing similar products, many of which are also marketed with a charity angle.
"At the moment, the biggest challenge for the company is finding new markets," she said.
Though the marketing approach is based on the fact that the women are HIV positive, Pel Sreyneth said the success of the venture depends on making products people want to buy.
Innovate to survive
The key is to produce new and more attractive styles to stay ahead of the competition. To achieve this, the group has received help from Bidi Russell, a Bangladesh model turned fashion designer who founded the Fashion for Development label and works to help weavers worldwide. She has visited twice, each time helping the women with technical skills and bringing fresh designs. Some of the company's bags carry "designed by Bibi Russell" tags, and she also helps promote the brand through her networks.
But Pel Sreyneth said the factory needs to stand on its own with respect to product development as well as financing. She looks to differentiate the factory's products from the competition by drawing inspiration from what she sees in the market and in catalogues, then adds new touches to make them unique to the factory.
"If I do that, it becomes a new style," she said.