KIM Dara Chan is a man with lofty ambitions. “Our big dream is to set up a factory to produce silk here in Cambodia,” says the co-founder of Stung Treng’s Women’s Development Centre. “We don’t have any silk factory in Cambodia. All is handmade.”
Based in the village of Sre Po, a few kilometres outside of Stung Treng, the centre is one of the few places in the country that produces its own silk, which it then sells under the Mekong Blue label. Even here, only a small percentage of the silk is produced at the centre, with the rest imported. According to Kim Dara Chan, 98 percent of the silk used in the Cambodian silk comes from overseas, leaving manufacturers vulnerable to foreign producers. This year the price of silk has increased by 40 to 50 percent.
Kim Dara Chan has no delusions about the enormity of the task.
“How to get the funding is the big problem,” he says. “It’s a big investment to set up a factory in Cambodia. We will have to import machinery. We will have to learn a new skill ... how to run a factory.”
However, he is not afraid of taking on a major challenge. Few people would have given him much chance of success when he established SWDC in January 2002, following a previous attempt to set up a hospice.
“We started with the most vulnerable women in the province,” says Kim Dara Chan. “Most of them could not read or write.”
Initially the centre focused on literacy and health education programmes, before moving towards vocational training in sewing and weaving.
“The training is free and we provide them with a kind of allowance, because they are from very poor families,” says Kim Dara Chan. “We give them rice and cooking oil.”
After training weavers are paid by the piece, taking home an average of US$80 per month according to Kim Dara Chan.
Industrious workers can make a lot more. “Last month one of our weavers earned $200,” he says.
In 2002, the centre started with six weavers and two looms. Now it employs 74 people.
“Running costs are 100 percent covered by income from sales by Mekong Blue,” says Kim Dara Chan. Silken goods are sold at the centre’s store, as well as two further stores in Phnom Penh and by assignment to Siem Reap. Customers can also purchase goods online.
Last year, Mekong Blue had a turnover of $100,000, which covered about 70 percent of SWDC’s total operational costs. Outside funding was required to pay for some of the centre’s social activities.
SWDC runs a community kindergarten that is available for people from neighbouring villages as well as Mekong Blue workers and a local school sponsorship scheme.
“Every year we support 100 children in the public school programme,” says Kim Dara Chan. “Some are the children of the weavers here and some are the children from the poor families.”
Kim Dara Chan wants to expand the weaving project and employ more women from the province. He also plans to open an orphanage opposite the centre. As for that big dream, the first step is to carry out a feasibility study in either Vietnam or India. Despite support from the provincial government, you sense that Kim Dara Chan is not exactly holding his breath. TRANSLATION BY RANN REUY