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Traditional mat weavers face threat of imports

Traditional mat weavers face threat of imports

An employee of Noun Yoy weaves a mat the traditional way in Kang Ta Noeng commune.

ATRADITION of mat-weaving stretching over at least five generations in one Cambodian family is under threat from machines in Vietnam and Thailand that can do the job faster and more cheaply.

But Noun Yoy, 64, a Cambodian sedge-mat craftswoman, says the commitment to quality she inherited from her grandparents - and is in turn passing on to her grandchildren - will ensure a future for the family business.

"Their mats are made using machines, and we use our hands only," she said. "We can't compete with them on price, and they also have the edge in terms of designs, but we can compete ... on quality."

Although mat-weaving has been in the family for generations, it was not until 1990 that Noun Yoy formalised the craft into a business, setting up a small company called Khmer Mat Kang Meas Craft.

"My grandparents and my parents passed their skills on to me. I had faith in myself that if I set up a handicraft business making sedge mats that I would have the ability to survive and earn money too."

The business, located in Kang Ta Noeng commune, in Kampong Cham province's Kang Meas district, employs six craftswomen, each earning US$40 to $50 per month.

Like many owners of small businesses in Cambodia and around the world, Noun Yoy has seen a downturn in business amid the global financial crisis after many "great" years of operation.

The business reached its peak at the height of the property boom in 2006 and 2007, she said, selling between 200 and 250 mats per month at between US$4 and $7.50 each. In recent months, sales have slumped to between 100 and 150 mats per month, picking up during traditional Cambodian wedding season, Khmer New Year and the Pchum Ben holiday, she said.

As a result of the financial crisis, Cambodian consumers are being more careful, Noun Yoy said. That caution also means would-be customers are more likely to pick a cheaper mat from Vietnam or Thailand.

Production has fallen from eight or 10 mats a day to just three or four as a result.

The business sells its wares locally, as well in Takeo, Kampot and Kandal provinces. It also has supply agreements with most major markets in Phnom Penh, she says.

The temptation to drop her prices to compete was strong, she said, but the practice had been devastating for many other weavers in the village who were already making small margins due to the high price of raw materials, which are sourced locally or imported from Kandal province.

"Almost all of the people in my village made sedge mats, but there have been many bankruptcies lately among those who dropped prices but still failed to secure additional orders," Noun Yoy said. "I have survived because I have always tried to build a good relationship with my clients. I always take good care of them."

Sedge-mat weaving is a labourious and time-consuming process. After harvesting, sedges must be sorted, sliced, dried and dyed before they can be woven. Weaving, which is still done by hand in most of Cambodia, usually requires two women operating one loom.

Noun Yoy acknowledges that there is little she can do to speed up production to compete with the threat from abroad, but she is not ready to give up hope.

"I want to ask the Cambodian government, as well as local and international NGOs, to send some international experts to help our handicraft makers develop new designs and lift their quality so we can compete with international mats," she said. "I think that if the government does not help us, there will be even more bankruptcies in my village."