Although Chhat Sokhoeurb drifted into becoming a weaver and vendor of banana pseudostem products through her younger brother, it is a career of social interest that she has found a passion for.
Handbags, shopping baskets and coffee cup holders from Khmer Banana Tree Anusa Weaving are Sokhoeurb’s key products, and she has worked very hard to make sure they are the best on the market.
With prices ranging from $10 to more than $20 for baskets and handbags, many people interested in local handicrafts have complained about the high prices, as the raw materials are easy to find and cheap.
Sokhoeurb, a teacher at a high school in Battambang province near the Phnom Sampov resort in Banan district, told the Post: “I notice that many people express an interest in my goods – but when they hear the prices, they are surprised. I want them to know that I do not make a large profit from these products. I do this work because I love it.”
“I want the public to understand the difficulties of production. They think because the raw materials are easy to find, they should not be too expensive. In fact, these items are not easy to produce,” she added.
Sokhoeurb recalled how she learned her weaving skills from her younger brother. They both enjoy creating things from the materials around them that they think are useful and help society.
Her younger brother often went to a farm, where he needed a basket to carry vegetables.Not wanting to spend money on a plastic basket, he cut some pseudostem, deciding to weave a basket after studying the technique through a YouTube video.
The young man, who already knew how to weave, began making simple baskets for use on the farm. Later, he developed his skills until he could produce many wonderful designs.
“One day when I came home after grading the answers tothat year’s Baccalaureate exam, I saw one of his latest works – it beautiful and I asked him to weave a bag for me,” said the 35-year-old.
It was around this time that pseudostem bags became popular with women, who wore them when they joined weddings.
She said her bag attracted the interest of her friends, and they asked her brother to make similar bags for them.
After receiving many orders, the two siblings began to think that they could create a business from his talent. Their key point of difference is that they are recycling things that most people think are useless.
She said that using banana trees is a new business idea – artisans usually use hyacinth or cane.
In addition, it helps the environment a lot. If housewives go to the market with a basket made of pseudostem , it will reduce the use of plastic, because without a sturdy basket, they will end up with a lot of plastic bags.
Sokhoeurb said this weaving skill was inherited from their Khmer ancestors and has almost disappeared, so they both thought it would be a successful business idea.
They launched the business at the end of 2019, but were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Her younger brother lost his confidence in their plans, and gave up. However, she knew she would regret throwing away an idea which she thought had so much merit.
It was also in line with her desire to start her own business in addition to her high school teaching career. She always knew that she had wanted her own business, and that it must be beneficial to society.
“When it came to the business, which offers so many benefits, I just couldn’t give up. I started learning from my brother and doing it myself during the Covid-19 lockdowns. I also studied business with various institutions, including SHE Investments, GIZ, the UNDP and Mango Tango,” she said.
As a fan of hand-woven products, Eang Satya, a 31-year-old teacher in Battambang province, bought a shopping basket to reduce her use of plastic bags.
“They have similar qualities, but the pseudostem products are superior,” she told The Post.
A cafe owner bought some of the products from the SHE Investment workshop because she also supports goods that replace plastic products.
Vong Chan In, bought the coffee cupholdersfor personal use and ended up reselling them to many hotels and restaurants in Siem Reap.
“Because I have a love of nature in my DNA, I wanted to promote handmade Cambodian products and help the environment,” she said.
She added that the quality of the holders was good, and they could be used many times. Chan In also bought and resold bamboo chopsticks from Kampong Cham province.
Khmer Banana Tree Anusa Weaving does not yet have permanent staff as it is a small business. Currently, Sokhoeurb employs three elderly women from a nearby village, who help with the coffee cup holders.
She said the production process is very similar to that employed in hyacinth weaving. Based on her experience, a banana leaf bag can be used from six months to a year while a basket can last more than a year, depending on the user.
“First I take the layer of pseudostem from the trees and dry them. Once they are dried, I cut them into strips, which can be wide or narrow, depending on the customer’s preference,” she said.
Once the strips are woven tightly together, they are very strong. She can turn them into designs every bit as beautiful as the more well known hyacinth versions.
Making a single basket requires one large banana tree, or more than one smaller tree.
“Obviously, I cannot supply all of the customers’ orders because I have a full time job and only weave bags and baskets. I am training my staff in order to help them understand how to weave more products. We have no issue making the coffee cup holders, and we are filling orders in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap as well,” she said.
Khmer Banana Tree Anusa Weaving bags and baskets are not yet available to tourists as she is currently only taking orders online, so production is limited.
As for the difficulties of the business, the teacher said that if she did not love it, she would give up easily like her younger brother.
“I would like to appeal to the public – if you are interested in hand-woven products, please try to understand the difficulties of production, not only formy business, but for all hand-made goods,” she added.