Try Soksamnang recalls the stench from the piles of discarded cow and buffalo horns behind his parents’ street-side beef soup shop in Prey Veng. “We would throw the horns at the back of the shop and it was hard for us to live,” he says. “The smell and all the insects made it very difficult for us.”
In a lightbulb moment, Samnang’s father Sokchen decided to transform the mounting piles of waste horns into something of value. “He came up with the idea of recycling the waste into jewellery to sell at the markets,” said Samnang. “This wasn’t easy. He spent a lot of time learning the process, especially how to get rid of the smell, knowing the age of the horns, its thread and how to create the best shapes.”
In 2003, the family moved to Phnom Penh to launch Somorna Horn Handicrafts but were met by many challenges. They had no experience selling at markets or promoting their goods, but the biggest obstacle was garnering support from relatives and peers, and getting the local market to understand the concept behind the business.
“Back in the day, Cambodians had a mind-set that they didn’t give value to jewellery made in Cambodia. They thought most of the stuff was poor quality and that made it hard to sell,” recalls 20-year-old Samnang sitting in front of a display of delicately handcrafted necklaces, bracelets and other ornamental items.
“Even people around him, his friends and family, didn’t like it because there was no market, so they thought what’s the point? They wanted him to stop. And because of a lack of marketing, no one in Cambodia recognised it.”
In 2017, the business set up a small showroom and workshop next to Choueng Ek on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Samnang’s mother, Koum Chenda quit her job as a nurse to help with marketing and Samnang was recruited as the only English speaker in the family to tap into the tourist market. They also expanded selling operations with stalls at Sorya Center Point and Wat Phnom.
“Tourists loved buying our products and a lot of Cambodians started to support us. From 2017, we had a really successful three years and the business was doing really well,” says Samnang.
However, when Covid-19 hit, orders plummeted and the business was forced to change tactics. The stalls at Sorya Mall and Wat Phnom were closed and staff was cut from eight to two. Samnang said the business only trains and employs people with disabilities. “Because of their disability they have difficulty finding a job, so we try to give them an opportunity and new skills.”
“Before, tourists loved buying our stuff but because of Covid we had to change our style to suit Cambodians,” he added. “We survived the pandemic because in the three years before, we made a lot of profit and had savings to support us during the two years. We also tried another strategy to sell online through Facebook.”
Handcrafting the products is no mean feat, taking about six months to complete. First, the horns that are bought from abattoirs and slaughterhouses have to be meticulously cleaned, a process that takes between three and four months. They are then left to rest and dry for a further two months to ensure no insects or odours materialise before being carved into the range of products that are for sale.
“These are very unique products that no one else in Cambodia is doing,” says Samnang, who, despite the hardships the last two years has dealt, remains optimistic about the future. “We want to move to bigger land to expand the showroom and workshop and provide somewhere for the staff to live. Ideally, we would like to start exporting our products outside Cambodia.”