Bamboo straws have become a popular alternative to conventional plastic ones, as they offer a reduced environmental impact. An association in Takeo is even exporting them.

With a machete in one hand and a keen focus on the bamboo shoots she was slicing up, Sok Nay, a 39-year-old resident of Sre Ta Sok village in Chumreah Pen commune, Samrong district of Takeo province, told The Post how she became a member of the Khmer Women’s Handicraft Association.

She explained that she originally moved to Phnom Penh to find work in a garment factory, but returned to her village when she learned that the association offered training.

She explained that the skills she acquired included how to craft palm leaves into hats, fans and storage boxes, as well as other souvenirs. She also learned the secret to making bamboo straws. By learning these skills, she was able to eschew the traditional subsistence farming of her ancestors, and produce products which meet the demands of modern markets.

“It is not just me. The other women of the village, as well as many more who live nearby, have been trained. Moving from unskilled labourers to skilled manufacturers has transformed the fortunes of my family, and those of many others,” she said.

Meas Savry, president of the Khmer Women’s Handicraft Association, told The Post that she established the association in 2006, and that 120 families were participating in its operations.

She founded the association when it occurred to her that the village had an abundance of palm trees and bamboo, but they were not being used for much, other than for traditional purposes which added no value.

“I saw many women leaving their families and children behind and going to look for work in large factories. I thought that if we could find a way to provide them with decent incomes right here in the village, they would be able to stay with their families. Gradually, people from nearby villages also joined the training,” she explained.

“We combined our savings into capital, so we can offer loans to our members at low interest rates, allowing them to pursue their own business ventures. At present, we have a combined total of more than 100 million riel,” she added.

She said current product lines include straws, handbags, tissue boxes and a range of hats.

“My aim is to assist vulnerable women who lack capital or do not have a secure job. Without an income, they struggle to support themselves and their families. To address this issue, I came up with the idea of teaching them skills that can be done from home. It doesn’t matter how much they earn – even a small amount contributes to their family’s livelihood,” added Savry.

She said that some of the skills were traditional ones that were practiced by her ancestors, while some were far more modern and required a steep learning curve. She received additional training from various organisations, and has been able to pass her skills on to the women of four villages – Sre Ta Sok, Thlok Damnak Luong and Damnak Troyeung in Chumreah Pen commune, and Thmei village in Rovieng commune.

The bamboo used for making straws, called dork mai, is typically the thickness of an infant’s wrist. It is commonly grown in the village, as it was previously used as a barrier to stop livestock from damaging crops.

“To make the straws, we first cut the shoots into the appropriate lengths, and then lay them in the sun to dry out. Next, we wash out the inside and then dry them for an additional three to four days. The additional drying helps to prevent mould or rot, especially with dork mai, which is less prone to deteriorating than other strains of bamboo,” explained Savry.

She did however express concerns that the local bamboo was now being used for other purposes – like building houses – and she feared that supply issues may become inevitable.

“The association typically sells straws to wholesalers in Phnom Penh, who sometimes order more than 1,000 straws at a time to fill export orders, although I am not sure which country they are exported to,” she said.

“We also sell hand fans to France, generally in shipments of over 1,000 at a time. Of course, we also sell them domestically,” she added.

According to Savry, a significant number of women have returned to work in garment factories, but she predicted that this may change, as demand grows for the association’s products.

Yit Siv, Chumreah Pen commune chief, told The Post that the association has changed the lives of several women, giving them job opportunities and finding markets for their products.

“Many women in Sre Ta Sok have been elevated from poverty and now lead dignified lives. They are learning new skills, and do not have to worry about the market as there are already customers waiting to purchase their goods. I am very pleased for them,” he said.

Choi Monly, director of the Takeo Provincial Department of Environment, told The Post that the association’s work is very important.

“It aligns with the Ministry of Environment’s policy of promoting the use of eco-friendly items. The ministry encourages all individuals and businesses to increase the use of biodegradable goods,” he said.

“Bamboo straws are superior to the plastic straws we used in the past. When we dispose of plastic, it does not decompose and has a negative impact on the environment. Bamboo straws, on the other hand, are compostable and when discarded will break down naturally,” he added.