MANAVA creates baskets and handbags in collaboration with Cambodian craftswomen from the village of Krobey Riel (10 km from Siem Reap).
From the Netherlands…
This amazing story begins in the Netherlands where Ka-Lai worked as a product designer, a career that allowed her to share stories while highlighting the beauty of nature, her greatest source of inspiration. Although she felt professionally fulfilled, Ka-Lai underwent life and business coaching in Utrecht, which brought to the fore some realities about herself. Amongst these, travelling, discovering new cultures and helping people through the stories she could share emerged as indispensable life goals.
Then she had a brainwave: why not go abroad to work with artisans inspired by their culture and share their products with the rest of the world? She decided to leave.
… For Cambodia!
With this idea in mind, Ka-lai still needed to work out her project and decide where to set it up. She quickly decided on Cambodia and a project based on art and disability. In the beginning, she intended to go back home after two months, but after falling in love with Cambodia and its amazing culture, staying was easy. Not long after arriving, Ka-Lai met Baraing Tho, a weaving expert who was already working with rattan weavers in Siem Reap. Baraing was enthusiastic about the project and the two personalities became a perfect professional match. The decision to join forces was a natural one.
Building the Brand
Baraing introduced Ka-Lai to some of the villagers of Krobey Riel, an area famous for its rattan weaving techniques, and who were keen to work with them.
Soon, the only thing missing was a name for the brand. By focusing on what the brand meant to them, the team finally chose the term “MANAVA”, meaning “humanity” in Sanskrit. The logo however is inspired by traditional Khmer Kbach symbols and traditional motifs such as the fish tooth, the dragon’s spine or the lotus can be seen on the baskets, a tribute to Cambodia’s cultural history. These symbols appear frequently in ancient drawings, pottery and sculptures in temples.
Supporting Village Women
MANAVA would not be a social enterprise without a social objective, to which end Ka-Lai and Baraing decided to give the weavers an 80% increase on what they were earning before. The company also teaches them other skills on subjects including family planning, financial management and domestic violence in collaboration with the Women’s Resource Centre, based in Siem Reap. MANAVA says:
“With us, the women know that their opinions count and that they can work in an equitable environment where camaraderie, crafts and happiness flourish.”
MANAVA also offers English classes for the weaver’s children
Respect for the environment
Before creating MANAVA, Ka-Lai knew that environmental protection was a subject close to her heart, a conviction that is reflected in the way the social enterprise operates. First of all, rattan is a material that grows naturally. Suppliers cut only what is needed for production and leave enough behind for the next season. Ka-Lai and Baraing are also planning to research the colouring, so that it can be as natural as possible. For packaging, they replace plastic with cardboard and newspapers where possible. Ka-Lai also wants to teach women what sustainable materials to use, what the disadvantages of plastic are, and how to avoid using it. Their objective, once they are fully functional, is to work 100% environmentally friendly.
The company works with a rattan material, called “pdau”, and willow, called “la paek”. This palm tree and grass grows quickly and can be found all over Cambodia.
Because the company believes in sustainable harvesting, it carefully limits gathering in order to ensure continued future growth season after season.
Manava uses the type of rattan that grows in lakes and rivers. Compared to the thicker rattan that grows in forests and mountains, this rattan is more flexible, thinner and grows back easily year after year.
Creating a social enterprise is not an easy task. Indeed, Ka-Lai and Baraing Tho have faced challenges to ensure the stability of the MANAVA project.
Finding the Right Team
As Ka-Lai explains, it was quite difficult in the beginning to find the right structure and people to work with. They noticed, for example, that their first weaving teacher did not want to share her knowledge for fear that they would not need her after the training. It was also difficult to meet the team’s schedule. Sometimes hotels would place large orders, which could not be met due to a lack of staff. A balance had to be found.
Two years later, the team is working much better and has managed to build more trust among the weavers. Indeed, at the beginning of the project, only four women from the village worked with MANAVA. Today, 13 women are part of the team and 12 new recruits will join them.
Unexpectedly, the women’s wages became an issue. In the beginning, they all received the same monthly salary. But Ka-Lai soon realised that the women were working rather slowly. With Baraing Tho, they decided to pay the women by the finished product, which produced better results. The women are now motivated and work faster. Indeed, the concept of salary didn’t suit them, as they preferred the freedom to manage their own time, allowing them to take care of their children, for example.
The financial side is often delicate when launching a project. As Ka-Lai explains, they started with very little money, which limited their field of action. They finally launched a participatory fundraising campaign in October 2018, which helped them raise about US$5,000. After two and a half years, Ka-Lai is happy to report that MANAVA is doing quite well financially!
Advice to Other Social Entrepreneurs
When asked what advice she would give to people wishing to start their own social enterprise, Ka-Lai responds quickly: “Get funding for your project and above all be patient!”
More seriously, she explains that the key for a social entrepreneur is to believe in oneself and one’s project. It is also important to have a clear plan in mind for the business and how to make it profitable to avoid wasting time (and therefore money). Ka-Lai also insisted on the importance of taking time for oneself. When you work for your own company, it is easy to work all the time without giving yourself a break or rest. Ka-Lai learned this the hard way and decided to take the time to focus on things that give her energy and clear her mind.
Projects for MANAVA
This is still the beginning for MANAVA, and Ka-Lai says it has many ideas for the future of the brand. She wants to partner with other social enterprises. As she explains: “There are so many great jobs out there and it would be even better to create new products and support each other!”
The brand is also starting to export its products, some of which are already sold in Europe, and the company has even received a large order from California. Finally, Ka-Lai and Baraing want to find new ways to support the women who work with them. Ka-Lai expresses her admiration for them:
“Despite their debts and family problems, they continue to be very welcoming and are always in a good mood.”
What started as a simple idea quickly became a real project, with a positive impact on the lives of many Cambodian women. If you would like to know more about MANAVA, you can visit their website. They sell products online and in the Soieries du Mékong, Shinta Mani hotel and Navutu Resort stores in Siem Reap.
Feel free to visit their website and contact them!
For more information about the CleanGreen project: www.cleangreencambodia.org
Article first published in French by Cambodge Mag