Turning Banana Trees into Handmade Handicrafts

Inspired by her passion for creativity and protecting the environment, Chhat Sokhoeurb has overcome challenges to launch a sustainable business transforming banana leaves into handmade Cambodian handicrafts
Chhat Sokhoeurb, in stripe shirt,  runs a small eco-friendly business, using banana trees to innovate into materials. Kiripost/supplied
Chhat Sokhoeurb, in stripe shirt, runs a small eco-friendly business, using banana trees to innovate into materials. Kiripost/supplied

Chhat Sokhoeurb is taking the sustainability movement to a whole new level by transforming banana trees into materials for bags, baskets and other souvenirs as the founder of Khmer Banana Weaving.

Hailing from Battambang province, the 35-year-old highschool teacher also runs a small eco-friendly business in her hometown, using banana trees to innovate into materials.

Sokhoeurb had always dreamed of owning a business that is unique and delivers creative ideas, while providing a positive impact on the environment. And she wanted to do something different, which she has achieved with Khmer Banana Weaving as there are few competitors in the field.

“If I want to run a business, I want to bring something unique to others. It’s more convenient as we do not have many competitors. Moreover, I’m the type of person who likes creative things, especially things that people think are useless, but we can innovate them into something useful and of value,” the founder said.

“The essential point is that those innovative things can reduce the amount of waste and replace the use of plastic as well. So, it can help the environment,” she added.

Hobby In Banana Farm Leads to Start-up

Sokhoeurb was inspired by her brother, who regularly visited a banana farm in his spare time to have fun creating baskets from banana trees he found there. Surprised by the unique baskets he produced, Sokhoeurb decided to take it a step further.

Chhat Sokhoeurb turns banana trees to innovate into materials. Kiripost/supplied
Chhat Sokhoeurb turns banana trees to innovate into materials. Kiripost/supplied

“One day, he carried a banana tree from the farm and made it into a basket to carry vegetables to the farm and bring fruitful crops back home. He was continuously making baskets from banana trees. Then when I came back from Phnom Penh after correcting grade 12 students' examination papers, I saw the last basket he made. It was so appealing, I think it was the most beautiful basket among any others that he used to create,” she recalled.

Sokhoeurb had previously come up with the innovation of creating purses from Hyacinth and was curious about making another version from banana trees. Sokheourb asked her brother to create a small purse for her to take to a wedding.

When she posted pictures online, her Facebook friends were amazed and placed orders for her to make more. This overwhelming support motivated both her and her brother to launch a small business using banana trees to create handicrafts.

Unfortunately, the business launched one month before the onset of Covid, causing orders to decline. This discouraged her brother and led to him leaving the business. In contrast, Sokhoeurb considered the pandemic as an opportunity to grow.

She recalled, “For me, I felt regret to abandon it since the business had been working for a while already. I have a feeling of love about it because I saw many advantages, such as helping the environment by cutting down on plastic use, and what we are doing is like​ our ancestors’ work that I saw in the village when I was young.”

Despite the sharp decline in orders during the pandemic, Sokhoeurb seized the opportunity to develop her soft and hard entrepreneurial skills. She focused on perfecting her weaving and business management by joining free online lessons and workshops​ from various organizations.

“Some people see that [banana handicraft] is convenient to create. But whenever they begin to do it by themselves, they see more difficulties. For people who don’t have talent and don’t love it, they can no longer stand to do that kind of work because it requires a lot, ” she said.

Challenges while making handicraft products

“There are challenges that we faced during the process of making it. Firstly, is to deliver the banana trees from the farm since they are heavy and full of resin. We then have to spend more time waiting for it to dry, especially for this rainy season. Otherwise, the trees will rot and cannot be used,” she said, adding it takes between one and two weeks for them to dry, depending on the weather.

Sokhoeurb added, “Then we have to patiently cut off the trees in order to clean it well. Additionally, we have to invest our time to twist the fibers one by one as there is no machine to facilitate that yet,”

It takes weaving experts about one-and-a-half days to create one small-size purse. For those with more than five years of experience, it can take one day to craft a medium-size purse.

Typically, materials made from banana trees can be used for up to one year and can be washed and dried as with other commonly used materials.

Baskets made out of banana trees. Kiripost/supplied
Baskets made out of banana trees. Kiripost/supplied

Sokhoeurb noticed there is increasing public awareness about sustainable products that use natural materials and locally-made handmade handicrafts. However, many consumers complain about the price as natural, handmade products take longer to create and take more effort.

“Please try to understand the difficulties of producers. There are more people who are interested in using natural handmade materials but they complain about the price, and are afraid of its quality and how long it can be used. Actually, it can be used longer and in a more sustainable way,” she said.

While eco-friendly businesses have a positive impact on the environment, owners face many challenges. Sokhoeurb wants to offer advice to those looking to start up. She said the main ingredients for success are love and patience.

“Please be patient and do it with love, otherwise, you will abandon this type of business because there are many challenges and difficulties. If we think only about the profits and lack passion, you might abandon it one day. Therefore, try to make it from the heart and follow what you dream about,” she said.