Tep Chanimith, a stone carver for Artisans d'Angkor, hammers away on a apsara staute in the Siem Reap workshop. Apsara statues and other Cambodian handicrafts will be shown at the World Expo in March.
When handicraft giant Artisans d'Angkor began operating in the late 1990s, it relied
on funding from Cambodian and European governments for survival.
It has since boomed.
From a modest annual turnover of $89,000 in 1999, Artisans d'Angkor became self-financed
in 2001, registered as a limited company in 2003, and last year reached a record
annual turnover of $4.5 million.
From copper leaf gilded Buddha heads to hand-woven luxurious silks, Artisans d'Angkor
creations will be a central part of Cambodia's pavilion at the upcoming World Expo
in March in Japan. It's the first time since 1970 that Cambodia will have a national
display at the Expo.
Prim Phloeun, commercial director of Artisans d'Angkor, is aware that this kind of
success is rare in Cambodia. "Usually when the funds stop, the project collapses,"
With such a comparatively small population and underdeveloped infrastructure, Cambodia
needs to think creatively about ways of competing at international levels.
Once, tourist shops in Siem Reap used to import fake "Khmer handicrafts"
from Indonesia, but now the locally-produced goods are providing a thriving market.
Phloeun believes the lively trade in handicrafts could be an arena in which Cambodia
Artisans d'Angkor works in partnership with the Chantiers-Ecoles de Formation Profession-nelle
(CEFP), an organization set up by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports in
CEFP trains young Cambodians, who are then employed as qualified craftspeople by
Artisans d'Angkor. The project gives skills to young people living in rural areas
and underserved by the local education system.
They are trained in ancient Khmer arts, including stone and wood carving, lacquering,
gilding, and silk-work.
The challenge was to create workshops in rural areas so the trained artisans could
find work in their home villages.
Phloeun says the logistics of coordinating production within 12 different villages
in Siem Reap province are complex, and expensive.
"We have to reinsert them back into their villages, so they can work in their
villages. It costs much more for us to do this," he says.
But benefits for the village are enormous. "It means that for the village, that
is $30,000 that is directly put into their economy," says Phloeun.
Artisans d'Angkor has created more than 800 jobs for both artisans and non-craftsmen.
Yem-Beaume Sorya, communications manager, says that at present only nine non-Cambodians
are employed to provide skills that can't currently be found within the local community.
"The goal is to pass on the skills to Cambodian people, and I think that's working,"
On average, artisans earn $864 per year, well above the national average income of
$297. All artisans belong to an association called Artisanat Khmer, which owns 20
percent of the company's shares, guarantees levels of pay, and oversees the social
and medical welfare of the workers - a first for Cambodia.
Half of Artisans d'Angkor shares are privately owned. The government owns the remaining
Phloeun is optimistic about the future of the company. He expects to employ an extra
150 graduates from CEFP this year.
He is looking forward to Artisans d'Angkor's debut at the World Expo in Japan. Phloeun
says they will also take responsibility for managing the commercial activities of
the pavilion. Artisans d'Angkor helped make the pavilion's decorations, and will
have a weaver and a carver on hand to demonstrate their skills.
"We hope that this will bring a lot of new opportunities to Cambodia,"