As part of the global observance of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day 2015, the Cambodia Women Entrepreneurs Association (CWEA) will hold a forum on Saturday on women in the context of a challenging workforce. The event will provide a platform for successful female entrepreneurs to share their experiences, and particularly the challenges they have overcome. The Post’s Cheng Sokhorng sat down with CWEA president Keo Mom to discuss her experience as a successful entrepreneur and the lessons to be imparted on other aspiring female entrepreneurs.
You founded LyLy Food Industry Co Ltd, a snack-food producer that has become one Cambodia’s most-recognised brands. What was your inspiration for starting the company and how did it begin?
I was just a simple vendor, selling out a house near O’Russey Market when I met a Singaporean businessman who said, “Why don’t you find a product that you can sell exclusively yourself? If you do, your business will grow fast.” I always kept his words in mind. After I got married, I worked from 1995 to 1997 for a different Singaporean businessman whose company exports drinks and crackers. With this job I learned stock control, finance management and how to manage staff. I also worked as a marketer and spent time outside selling goods for the company. In the local markets I saw many kinds of crackers imported from neighbouring countries, especially rice crackers. I thought that if I could produce crackers in my hometown, I could cut transport costs while providing fresh, new foods to Cambodian children.
We already had plenty of the raw material used to make crackers, like corn and rice, so I figured the venture would also create jobs for local people and farmers, which would allow them to expand their farms and improve their livelihoods. And with this we could play a part in reducing poverty. So in 2002, I opened my business with 20 workers, obtained a food production licence and secured the trademark LyLy Food. We now have over 200 workers and 20 flavours of rice crackers, and export to many markets.
What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
I initially encountered a lot of problems such as insufficient knowledge and skills in staff management and finance, as well as in technical experience controlling machinery. I also struggled with capital. I had to sell my house to collect enough money to run the company, which cost me around $100,000 in the beginning. But I made an effort to solve all these problems because I believed in the business opportunity that I’d envisioned.
As a female entrepreneur yourself, did you face any particular challenges when dealing with banks, suppliers and distributors?
Women entrepreneurship has many challenges, especially in accessing bank loans – it’s not as easy for women as it is for men. The banks think that women are a high risk because they assume that they will not be able to pay back the loans. This was what I experienced at the time, and when I did receive a small loan the interest rate was higher than what would have been offered to a man. But after overcoming these obstacles and showing my capabilities in business, I was able to receive bigger loans at a lower interest rate. I also faced some headwinds in securing my supply chain because suppliers do not trust women-managed businesses. Everything is much better these days because we’ve proved our success.
The vast majority of micro-enterprises in Cambodia are run by female entrepreneurs, yet many of these businesses fail. Why?
According to research, 65 per cent of women entrepreneurs own small and medium enterprises, while very few own large enterprises. I think that some women’s businesses have failed because they just stayed at home or in the market. They were less knowledgeable on business than their male counterparts. So when they faced obstacles they became frightened and retreated. I’ve also noticed that many women entrepreneurs do not have business plans and lack financial management skills.
How is the Cambodia Women Entrepreneur Association (CWEA) helping support women entrepreneurship?
CWEA encourages women entrepreneurs to participate in social activities, receive training, develop business ideas and exchange experiences. When women see how big the world is, their big problems become small and solvable – and women can help each other in this. The association cooperates with the government and organisations to provide training courses, such as finance management, business management and business planning for women entrepreneurs. We also plan to help women receive bank loans by applying through the association.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.