SIEM REAP - It was a tough time during Covid-19 and So Sambath’s business continues to struggle. Despite the pandemic waning, the Ukraine war makes it even more challenging.
Sambath is a Cambodian businesswoman who runs a water hyacinth handicraft in Siem Reap province and she’s no exception to the impact of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which have had a major effect on businesses all over the world.
Sambath, 57, has been through a lot in the past two years. Her business, which she has been running for 15 years, barely survived the pandemic. Despite borders being closed and tourism at a standstill, she was determined to keep her business afloat, so she sold some of her gold jewelry to keep her employees on the payroll.
“It was a tough time managing my business during the Covid-19 period; I barely survived. I sold some of my gold bracelet and necklace in order to continue to support my employees and business in progress," Sambath told Kiripost in an interview.
Sambath is a handicraft artist who has been making and selling her creations since 2007. Her work is well-liked throughout the Kingdom, and she also exports to international markets, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, the United States, and Indonesia.
Sambath's handicraft business has been hit hard by the pandemic. She used to sell about 1,000 pieces per month to overseas customers, but that number has dropped significantly in the past three years.
The pandemic has led to a decrease in tourism and consumer spending, as well as supply chain disruptions, all of which have hurt handicraft businesses.
In the case of Sambath's handicraft business, the pandemic has led to a sharp decline in orders from both national and international customers. This has resulted in a rapid drop in income, and has forced Sambath to lay off some of her employees.
“The majority of customers' purchase orders are from abroad. Possibly due to the Russia-Ukraine war and the recent collapse of a US bank, this has touched the entire economy, as well as my customers being disconnected,” Sambath said.
“Right now, my international customers still only account for a small portion of overall business due to the pandemic, so I mostly rely on local customers,” she added.
Sambath called on the public and relevant ministries to support marketing efforts and expand existing markets in order to promote locally-produced handicrafts on a global scale, through this small business to generate more income for improving our living conditions.
A warehouse guard soldier
Sambath was a warehouse guard soldier in Phnom Krom, Siem Reap province, from 1979 to 2000, and experienced a hard time training and starving during the struggle. From 2000 to 2010, she was both a soldier and a farmer, using all her strength to support her five children: four girls and a boy.
In 2008, a Japanese NGO visited the Phnom Krom region, a secluded location with plenty of lakes and aquatic hyacinths. There they came up with the concept of teaching the neighborhood's orphans, widows, and children how to weave the plants into products for sale so they could use those skills in the future.
She said that she did not undergo any formal training but watched those who had. After she saw a little of how they went about it, she started experimenting with her own designs and techniques.
With a lot of patience and attention in producing bags and other souvenirs from water hyacinths, she became the most beautiful craftsman designer and produced the most famous water hyacinth handicrafts in Phnom Krom.
She said that it is difficult to find water hyacinths as the main raw material now. She explained that the deterioration of the water hyacinth plant is because the lake and pond near her house are being filled up for road construction development, which used to be an excellent source of hyacinths.
"Nowadays, this plant grows only in the countryside, ponds or lakes in remote areas, while a lot of people are interested in doing this business so the water hyacinth is even more scarce, ” she said.
Besides expressing concern, Sambath plans to request the authorities to restore the water reservoir in the backyard deeper in order to make it simpler to move more water in the spring.
In order to use them for craft, they must be dried in the sun for 15 days, although it may take longer during the rainy season. After drying, they are washed with soap and then boiled to kill any germs that might be present. At this stage, dye is added to create different colors.
The water hyacinth handicraft can design hundreds of different styles of bags in response to customer orders, we kindly ask that people support the goods made by Cambodia,” she said.
“I would like all Cambodians to support Khmer products made from water hyacinth, since there has been less focus on promoting our local products, so I would like the government to consider it, which is better quality to use for more than five to seven years.”
In 2018, her business, Phnom Krom Water Hyacinth Handicraft, won with great honor an award in the Road to Homeland Awards, which sought to recognize small and medium business success stories. The awards ceremony was held at the capital's Koh Pich Convention and Exhibition Centre and came with recognition by the state.
Provide job opportunities to a community
This handicraft business has been operated for more than 15 years with the aim of promoting local Cambodian products and providing employment to jobless people in the community as a part of contributing to reducing migration, the handicraft owner told Kiripost in an interview.
Since Phnom Krom is a remote area, with her talent, Sambath thought creating a small business would allow her to support her family and provide job opportunities to the community.
“I have 25 workers at Phnom Krom Water Hyacinth Handicraft who receive job opportunities, with each making an average of $200 per month,” she said. “Even though this is a small business, we provide many work opportunities for both men and women, young and old people, starting from water hyacinth farmers to the sellers of handicraft products.”
Sitting on the floor, weaving a water hyacinth bag, she said her vision is to make Khmer products and culture well-known throughout the world, not just in Cambodia.
“Although working with this material calls for a lot of patience, when done well, it can produce extraordinary beauty. If the weaver is not paying close attention to their work, it will not be as attractive,” she said.
In addition to designing bags, water hyacinth is also used to make other items, including sleeping mats, chairs, bins, hats, shoes, picnic mats, tablecloths, and more. Most products range from $5 to $45.