With the vision of “one house, one eco-bin”, a Cambodian woman from Kampong Cham province has been shortlisted for the 2022 National Entrepreneur Award.

Soeurng Sothary founded Eco-Bin with the vision of recycling old vehicle tyres into bins with a meager budget and almost no support, even from her own family.

“The National Entrepreneur Award competition is a great event which I dreamt about entering three or four years ago. At the time, I did not meet the criteria to enter,” she told The Post.

Never giving up on her dream, Sothary researched what information she would need to achieve intellectual property registration and enter.

The native of Prey Chhor district in Kampong Cham said: “I decided to apply for the National Entrepreneur Award, and was lucky enough to one of the final 20 businesses selected for the final round.”

Her business was established in 2021 with the aim of enhancing the beauty of Cambodia, creating job opportunities for local people, helping poor communities through humanitarian activities, promoting local products and reducing the environmental impact of old tyres.

“I want Cambodia to have bins in every home to contribute to the reduction of waste. Our bins are made from waste materials themselves, so even their construction has an ecological advantage,” she said.

From humble origins

Born into a low-income family, Sothary graduated with a Bachelors degree in English Literature from Norton University and pursued a Master’s degree in Rural Development.

Starting out with a personal capital of $144, she often faced criticism that the bin recycling business is unsuitable for women.

“Critics thought that this kind of industry is only suitable for men, and that a woman cannot be successful. They thought that it was crazy and worthless to collect dirty things like garbage to recycle. I got no recognition,” she said.

Many challenges forced her to suspend the operation until three years ago, when she returned to her craft.

“I think it contributes a lot to society, so I’m giving myself a chance to do it again. This time around, I am receiving plenty of support and encouragement,” said the 33-year-old environmentalist.

She is pleased that she endured the naysayers and stayed the course, as her business is now gaining the support of public and private institutions.

“I changed the mindset of people who are interested in protecting the environment around their homes, starting with themselves. Currently, my eco-bins are almost everywhere in Cambodia,” she added.

A small bin costs $25 and a large one is $35. She said the bins are resistant to rain, heat and the weather, and will last up to ten years.

“The price customers pay is not much, considering the many stages of production,” she explained.

Before being recycled as the final product, production begins with her staff collecting old tyres from garages.

Manufacturing a green product Sothary, who received a certificate of environmental friendliness from the Ministry of Environment, explained the manufacturing process.

“The staff take their trailers to each district across the province. Sometimes, they take two weeks or a month to source enough tyres. Once we have the tyres we need, the workers started to slice out the contact patch of the tyres to make them thin enough that we can fold them into shape,” she said.

Tyres that have been sliced are turned inside out, and then extra parts are attached. The bins are designed to be strong enough to support the weight of the garbage inside them, she added.

Used bins which have become scratched and stained are cleaned and dried by her staff before they are sprayed with black paint to restore their looks.

Eco-Bin founder Soeurng Sothavy poses with one of her bins in Kampong Cham. SUPPLIED

After painting, the bins are left in the sun for two days to cure, before branding and phone numbers are sprayed on to the bins. After additional drying time, the eco-friendly finished bins are shipped to a Phnom Penh depot ready for dispatch to their final destination.

“We have workers working in sections, whether preparing frames, or bin covers, and so on. Our designs are based on the size of the tyres we are working with. Each person is focused on their stage of the production process. The small-scale operation has a total of just 17 workers across both its production and administration teams.

From the very beginning, a lack of capital and finance has been the main obstacle for her, and this has slowed down the expansion of her business.

Sothary, who won a 2021 Good Citizen Award, said: “In terms of profits, we have not made much. We generate only a small income, but at this point it is worth it, because we are making a difference.”

The demanding nature of the work means that her staff must demonstrate persistence and a love for the environmental benefits of the work they are doing.

“You can imagine how difficult slicing tyres by hand can be, and we do not have machines to do the work for us. The knives we use are not even sharp enough to cut vegetables, so it is very hard,” she said.

Fortunately, her environmental rubbish containers are now becoming widely publicised and recognised.

The bins are regularly ordered by schools, hospitals, tourism sites, resorts, private companies, NGOs, and pagodas, with most of the orders coming in ahead of the Pchum Ben season.

Targeted customers include retail stores, private companies and NGOs, which buy them under their corporate social responsibility plans.

She has partnered with the UNDP and USAID for sustainable projects in Cambodia. She also receives strong support from the Ministry of Environment, which has provided her with the opportunity to supply her bins to 80 schools across Cambodia.

“We are searching for support from partners who share our vision. With their cooperation, we have the potential to grow the company exponentially,” she said.

In addition to black, the bins are also available in a variety of bright colors. Bins with dividers are also available, to encourage trash separation. Sothary said she was examining the possibility of adding other products to the company’s range, such as furniture.

“We are studying the feasibility of making sofas, animal feed containers and other products that customers want. If we can meet their needs, we will manufacture them,” she said.

A willing contestant

In the run-up to the 2022 National Entrepreneur Awards, the entrepreneur plans to develop her business by training more local staff and opening workshops in more locations. She also wants to purchase machinery that will accelerate production and collect more raw materials, so as to alleviate the environmental burden of unwanted tyres.

The competition is organised by the National Institute of Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Cambodian Entrepreneurs, and supported by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation. Finalists will compete for a $10,000 prize on November 23 in Phnom Penh.

As one of the shortlisted candidates, Sothary attended orientation training and prepared documents so that she can present a detailed business plan.

“The next part of the competition requires each business owner to present their business plan. If we make a mistake, provide false or distorted information, then we will be automatically disqualified,” she said.

After the presentation, there will be an on-site visit from an evaluation committee to ensure that the craft does not have a negative impact on the community.

“One house, one eco-bin to generate income for local workers and cultivate the mindset of people to love and protect the environment everywhere,” remains her vision and mission statement, and she repeats it like a mantra.

“I want to thank all of my staff for their hard work and dedication. In this competition, whether I pass or fail, I am proud that I got to this point, it did not happen by accident,” she added.