Handbags, vegetable baskets and wire holders for coffee mugs, all hand-woven in Khmer-style designs from banana silk, are gaining popularity in Cambodia. The trend is especially important in reducing plastic usage in the community.

Chat Sokhoeup, owner of the social enterprise at Phnom Sampov village in Battambang province’s Banan district, is committed to preserving her ancestral hand-weaving skills while being environmentally conscious.

She not only benefits the environment but also provides employment to seven women in her community.

Sokhoeup’s venture began in 2019 as an experiment and personal initiative. She initially picked fruit on her farm with her younger brother, who crafted a basket from banana fibre for fruit storage. His skill in creating diverse and attractive baskets inspired Sokhoeup to turn the craft into a profession.

“In the beginning, my brother wove simple baskets for vegetables and fruits. I saw the potential for a business and decided to develop it further,” she explains.

Sokhoeup notes that women’s handbags were the first to gain popularity. She showcased them at wedding ceremonies and on Facebook, where they attracted considerable interest and orders.

Through her research, Sokhoeup discovered the versatility of banana trees, which offer more than just fruits and stalks. She notes that banana silk is a sustainable and strong natural fibre derived from the pseudo-stem of banana trees, used in various eco-friendly textiles and products.

Her commitment to preserving ancestral weaving techniques and providing employment for women in her community led her to launch the business in 2020. However, the Covid-19 pandemic presented challenges.

Her range of handmade products includes baskets, coffee cup carriers, handbags, backpacks and water bottle holders for hiking, all designed in Khmer style.

She also creates computer bags that can hold documents and mobile phone covers. Prices range from $10 to $40, depending on the product and style.

“As for the products’ quality, they can be used for many years. They are harmless to health as they contain no chemicals,” she affirms.

Sokhoeup currently owns several banana plantations and purchases additional supplies from local villagers. 

Explaining the process of creating her goods, she says it begins with slicing the banana tree into thin strips and drying them. The strips are then folded or tied and woven together. The time taken to complete each product varies from two to five days, depending on its size and shape. 

Positive environmental impact

Sokhoeup highlights the environmental impact of her products, particularly in reducing the use of plastic bags, with a focus on wires for holding coffee cups.

“Now, coffee sellers in my community have started ordering holders for coffee cups from me. Using one of my products can eliminate the need for one plastic bag,” she says.

Sokhoeup has observed that her products are increasingly popular and attracting interest from various regions, including Koh Kong, Kampong Speu, Pursat and Battambang provinces, although they are particularly popular in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. 

She says customers order her coffee cup holders as part of their commitment to environmental conservation.

The government, through the Ministry of Environment, has reaffirmed its support for efforts to reduce plastic use and Prime Minister Hun Manet has praised such initiatives. 

Ministry undersecretary of state and spokesperson Khvay Atitya emphasises the significance of products made from banana trees and locally processed materials. 

He says these items contribute substantially to the campaign against plastic bags, promoting eco-friendly materials, disseminating new knowledge to local communities and providing an additional source of income alongside other farming activities, all without adversely affecting public health.

Atitya notes that the production of materials from banana fibre has significantly influenced the mindset of traders, particularly in relation to three objectives: Firstly, to join a comprehensive movement to reduce plastic waste in Cambodia; secondly, to encourage traders to permanently cease providing plastic bags to customers; and thirdly, to improve the lives of those in communities who produce baskets or other items from banana trees. 

He added that the trees are easy to cultivate and offer numerous benefits to the manufacturing industry.

According to Atitya, the campaign to reduce plastic use, themed “Today I will not use plastic”, has seen considerable participation. Over 8,100 schools, 30,000 students and five million people engaged in the campaign from September 1, 2023, until March 12 this year.

“I hope and believe that the spirit of the … campaign will heighten awareness among all people, encouraging them to regularly incorporate this understanding into their daily lives for environmental reasons. 

The initiative contributes to the cleanliness of the Kingdom and helps maintain a sustainable global environment. The avoidance of plastic reflects a collective commitment to environmental protection and demonstrates the people’s care for our nation,” he says.

“For the sake of cleanliness and to achieve a pollution-free Cambodia – in terms of land, water and air – the ministry’s Circular Strategy on Environment focuses on three key aspects: cleanliness, greenery and sustainability. 

By participating in the … campaign and aligning with global efforts, we contribute to protecting and preserving the planet’s environmental quality. This endeavour is crucial for maintaining sustainability and beauty for today’s mankind and future generations,” he adds.