Palm trees provide many benefits to Cambodian society. Their leaves are used for roofing, their fruit can be used to make palm cakes, the juice from their flowers can be squeezed to make sugar and their stems can be woven onto rafts.
Increasingly, however, palm trees are being turned into luxury sculptures, high-end furniture and all kinds of home utensils.
In a 30sq m wall-less shelter in Boeung Chhouk village of Bakan district’s Boeung Bot Kandol commune in Pursat province, a team of 70 men and women from San Pov Handicrafts are hard at work, cutting and polishing a variety of shapes. Among the staff there are several blind and disabled villagers, who have adapted to the work with surprising ease.
The owner of the enterprise, San Pov, shared his extraordinary commitment to the art of crafting the humble palm tree into desirable items.
“In 2003, I was still a rice farmer. I had seen many palm trees felled in my time as a farmer, and always wondered if there wasn’t a better use for them,” he told The Post.
Around the same time, a small social enterprise in the district opened a training course which offered to teach the disabled how to turn palm trees into rice ladles, forks and chopsticks.
“The course was not open to the able-bodied, but I offered to work for free, just to acquire knowledge. They turned me down. At that time, I could not even afford to buy clean water,” he said.
“Each day, I would ride six km to the workshop and ask to be taught. Eventually, the manager saw my desire and I was accepted,” he added.
Due to the distance from his house, he asked only that he be allowed to share lunch with his fellow students. Once the manager saw how hard he was working he was offered an allowance of 50,000 riel per month.
“I told them that I would work for free, as long as I learned the skills I needed to make some basic utensils. For two months, the manager refused to train me – he was afraid I would open my own business and take his customers!” said Pov.
After he left the handicraft in early 2004, he began to search for customers.
His first order was for a ladle and a long fork for stirring vegetables, which presented a problem – he did not have a mould for a ladle. He was able to catch a chicken to sell, and with the proceeds, made his way to Phnom Penh to find the mould he needed.
“I slept with that ladle mould under my pillow – when I could sleep. All I could think about was the idea that if I could sell a ladle for $1, and sell 100 of them, that would be $100. $100 was a lot of money to me,” he recalled.
Once he had mastered the art of crafting beautiful ladles, he began thinking of new templates and prototypes for new styles and products.
“I continued to fill the orders that I was receiving, but once they were done, I started experimenting with my own ideas. Some days, I came up with five different prototypes. I had no formal design training, but I had a passion! I believe that when we work with our heart and our mind, we will become successful,” he added.
He said that from 2004 to 2019, he steadily expanded his operations until he was employing 180 workers – some disabled – to produce his product line of more than 2,000 items.
The blind staff members have become experts at polishing the delicate timber, while he assigns light manufacturing tasks to some of those with mobility issues, many of whom live on the premises.
In this way, he was able to offer employment to many people in the community who would otherwise have no work.
Unfortunately, like almost the entire world, San Pov Handicrafts felt the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Pov was forced to make redundancies, and now employs 70 staff, most of them women.
He explained that nearly all of his products are made by hand, so very little machinery is employed in his workshop. The business’ range currently includes everything from kitchen utensils to cabinets and heavy furniture.
The majority of the trees he sources are older and no longer bear flowers or fruit, he said, noting that he purchased many from farmers who had felled them for these reasons. The majority come from Kampong Speu province, as they are more plentiful there.
“At the end of December this year, with help of several institutions in Pursat, I will exhibit my products in Koh Pich, Phnom Penh, as part of the One Village One Product Movement. I am confident that the visitors will be impressed by my goods,” said Pov.
On Phalla, one of the enterprise’s blind craftsman, told The Post that he found work there four years ago, when the owner appealed to people with disabilities to apply for work. Since he began, he had also been living at the workshop.
His job is to polish palm boards before they are sent to be painted, and he has become an expert in this role. In the past, he believed he would never be capable of earning a living and supporting himself, he said.
“I am very grateful, and pleased that this business accepts me as a blind working man – many other companies would not,” he added.
Hun Kim Ea, Boeung Bot Kandol commune chief, told The Post that the factory has reduced the number of people from Boeung Chhouk and nearby villages who migrate, because it pays quality salaries of between $150 and $500. San Pov, the owner, often helps local people whether it is establishing a landfill or providing relief to people who suffer disasters.
“He has helped countless homeless people and beggars, especially those with disabilities, by offering them respectable work and letting them stay on the premises,” he said.
“As far as I understand it, he also insists on using older trees which no longer bear fruit, another positive aspect. The provincial authorities have offered San Pov Handicrafts recognition for the good work they do,” he added.