Used car tyre inner tubes and concrete sacks were not always considered ideal materials for handbags, backpacks and other useful consumables, but thanks to the efforts of one Cambodian, they are now available in markets as far away as Canada, Australia, the UK and the US.
Based in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tumpun commune, Meanchey district, “Smart Craft” is the brainchild of Lao Chamroeun, a 42 year-old man who was born crippled in one arm.
Chamroeun recounted the journey that had led him to international fashion markets. Born to a family of traders in Prek Romdeng commune’s Prek Chreung village in Srey Santhor district of Kampong Cham province, he was the fourth of five children.
Chamroeun graduated from the University of Management in 2005, but new that even with a degree, he would have to find a way to make his own way in the world. Despite his disability – even having to ride a motorcycle with the throttle changed to the left hand side – he set about forging his own path.
In 2005, he found work with an organisation in Phnom Penh which taught various skills to people with disabilities.
After studying there, he was employed at several enterprises which manufactured handbags. In 2014, he started his own business.
According to Chamroeun, his business sewed bags and other accessories made of silk, but ultimately, it was unsuccessful. After he closed down the operation, he sought a new approach.
Employing members of the Boeung Tumpun commune disabled community, he began making handbags, wallet and backpacks from told car tyre inner tubes and used cement bags. He now employs more than a dozen workers, nearly all wheelchair-bound.
When he first started manufacture, his products did not attract much attention. Several years later, thanks to the power of social media, the number he began to receive – both domestically and from abroad – began to grow steadily.
“I think if inner tubes are broken or old, they will be thrown away where they will become waste. If they are burned, they will produce toxic fumes and be a health hazard. I thought if I could take discarded items and turn them into something valuable, I would be helping the environment, at least in part,” he said.
He told The Post that his team asked builders for their old cement bags, or bought them from construction sites for very low prices. He obtains the inner tubes from repair shops in a similar fashion. Once the raw materials are at his workshop, they need to be thoroughly cleaned before they can be turned into stylish products.
Chamroeun said that inner tubes each have a unique pattern, which adds another design element to his creations. As they are all black, he often dyes them to create a totally new look.
“Currently, our products are available in Canada, Australia, the UK and the US, as well as in markets and souvenir shops across the Kingdom. Foreigners value my bags because they are handmade by a special labour force. They demonstrate the creativity of my workers,” he added.
He said many Cambodian customers also appreciated his bags. One local company, which sells chicken and duck feed, commissioned a series of bags for its employees made from surplus sacks of its own feed products.
However, he maintained that the international market is where he makes his best sales. Western buyers tend to have more disposable income, and place more value on hand-made items he says.
“Perhaps it helps that Cambodian cement bags are unique to them and not something they see every day!” he joked.
“The overseas stockists of my bags typically order between 100 and 150 items at a time, and they pay for their own shipping. Our smaller, simpler designs may sell for as little as $4 per unit, whereas large, complex designs can be over $10. We sell many shapes and sizes,” he added.