The “Social Enterprise CoCo de Takeo centre” known as “CoCo de Takeo” is a programme run by the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh, founded by Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler. The handicraft project offers many programmes in addition to processing coconut – such as weaving and sewing clothes.

The centre helps people with disabilities and unskilled young people to find employment and contributes to local farmers’ incomes by purchasing coconuts at fair prices. The coconuts are then processed into unique products. It was established in 2016 in the Kus commune’s Pong Teuk Khang Tbong village of Takeo province’s Tram Kak district.

“We have a building for women with disabilities – some of whom are amputees, or deaf. We have trained them to sew clothes,” said Mak Sorn, president of the centre.

“We also run a programme of scarves and handkerchiefs from yarn or silk. We also process the fibre from banana trees into a material which we can weave, and finally we have our coconut processing,” he said.

“Although there are many programmes being run at the centre, the coconut processing operation is the most successful. Our craftspeople employ the coconuts to the fullest extent possible, turning the shells and husks (coir) into flower pots, noodles, shoes and more,” he added.

Sorn said that at first they only produced coconut candy, but later, seeing the huge potential left over from the coconut crop, he and Olivier pushed for further research into potential products.

“First, we wanted to reduce waste. Then we wanted to find gainful employment for people with disabilities. Finally, we wanted to try to support the use of reusable natural products, rather than plastic bags,” he said.

Later on, the centre acquired a machine which could grind coir.

According to Sorn, coir can be use as compost or dried fertiliser for growing plants and flowers. It can also be used to make shoes, foot towels, rope, plates, or even ornaments.

As for the coconut shells, when ripe, they are used as cups or for storage containers. In addition, they can be carved into small souvenirs like earrings, key chains, and model animals.

Once the milk has been extracted, the remaining coconut can also be ground into a flour and used to make noodles – as delicious as rice noodles, they are all natural and do not require artificial preservatives.

“We use eggs and vegetables with a certain percentage of coconut flour to make our noodles. We use the coconut milk to make candy and also produce a high quality coconut oil. The oil can be processed into face washes, body scrubs and other cosmetics,” he explained.

He said that they did not import coconuts from outside the region, but used local fruits that were bought at a higher than market price from local people. The coconuts are all natural and no chemicals are used to preserve them.

He said that the centre processes more than 3,000 coconuts per month.

“The idea is to initiate small ideas that create jobs for local people, both those employed at the centre and those producing the coconuts,” he said.

Pom Saran, one of 38 craftspeople at Coco De Takeo, said that he had worked at the centre for more than six years. He began making coconut candy, but had moved on to other parts of the programme.

The 32-year-old man was born in Takeo province and suffers from hypochondroplasia, meaning his limbs did not fully develop, a condition formerly classified as short-limbed dwarfism. He said he had lived in Olivier’s centre since he was in grade 8. After he completed grade 12, but couldn’t find work, Olivier offered him a job in Phnom Penh.

Saran, who now has three children, said: “At that time, I was returning home once a month. Then Bishop Olivier gave me a position in Takeo province, so I did not need to travel.”

Saran told The Post that the centre had taught him useful practical skills that he never thought he would acquire. The only work he had done prior was taking care of his family’s cattle and chickens.

“Before, I was unable to earn an income for my family, but now I have a skilled job. I am very pleased because now I can send my children to school and provide all of the things they need,”” he said.

Sorn explained that the centre began processing coconuts in 2019 and saw almost instant sales growth, until the Covid-19 pandemic led to a slowdown.

He said that orders were picking up momentum once again, with many Phnom Penh showrooms wanting pieces and orders coming in from businesses along the Thai border, too.

Sorn said some of the centre’s products were very popular with Cambodian customers – especially the coconut flower pots, which were sold at $15 per ten pots – but some of their products were more expensive, and struggled to gain traction in the domestic market.

“What we need to do more of is work how to present our handicrafts to tourists. If we can have them come and see our manufacturing centre, then they can see the process and meet our craftspeople before they purchase our products. We are also examining what kind of items we could add to our range to appeal to the needs of the tourism market,” he said.

“Our operation aims to support both suppliers and the local population. If our craftspeople and our customers are happy, then we are accomplishing our goal. We also like the idea that young Cambodians see what can be done with the raw materials of the Kingdom, as we believe they are an important part of our Khmer identity,” he added.