How One Social Entrepreneur Is Tackling Poverty in Cambodia

Yesterday, I posted about Mekong Blue—a brand of silk scarves that supports a social enterprise for women in northeastern Cambodia. It’s a simple concept that’s on the rise—social entrepreneur sees problem, addresses it in a small-scale way that merges nonprofit and business models…and changes lives.

In the case of Mekong Blue (the brand/products) and the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center (the nonprofit part), the problem is that women suffer disproportionately from poverty in places like rural Cambodia.

It’s a perfect storm of disadvantages: Rural families often send boys to school while expecting girls to work at home and to marry very young. Boys are encouraged to become financially self-sufficient, while girls are steered toward becoming wives and mothers. And the child-rearing falls mostly to women. But what happens to a woman and her kids if her husband falls ill or dies? Or if he’s an addict, an abuser, or a poor earner?

In those cases, a woman’s choices are stark, and few: work in the rice fields; work in the garment factories far from home; work in the sex trade, to name a few.

And the latter choice is no choice at all.

SWDC founder Chantha Nguon’s idea was to offer rural women another choice: learn a trade, earn a living, and rely on themselves.

SWDC weavers at work

Nguon does not like charity, and she doesn’t want the women of SWDC to live on handouts. She wants for them what she’s worked so hard to earn for herself: a life’s work that’s safe and dignified, a living wage, self-sufficiency.

The Stung Treng Women’s Development Center does offer women a hand up, in the form of nutritious lunches, a kindergarten for their children, health and literacy education. But the women fund this help with their own hands, by designing, dyeing, and hand-weaving gorgeous silk scarves to sell. Profits help fund the kindergarten, the literacy classes, and the lunches, as well as paying them a good salary. They often delay marriage and childbearing, says Nguon. They build their own houses and send their kids to school.

Help women in the developing world achieve financial independence, says a growing body of poverty researchers, and you empower their kids, their villages, their societies. It’s called the Girl Effect: the idea that money in women’s hands is more likely to go directly toward food, medical care, and education for their children—and to break the cycle of poverty for their families.

Here’s the rub: it only works if people buy the scarves. And during a global economic crisis, people aren’t buying.

SWDC once employed 100 women. Now 40 women work there, leaving nearly half the looms standing idle.

This Cambodia blog series isn’t about the hard sell. It’s mostly about storytelling, a way for me to grasp the amazing things I saw and learned during my 2 weeks there, and to offer stories to anyone who shares my fascination with faraway places.

But just for today, the day before the Christmas shopping season kicks off in earnest, I’m telling you this: I bought 4 scarves from Mekong Blue, and it felt good. I’d just seen carefree kids in a playground and women sharing lunch together. I watched them weaving and spinning, and talked to one about her life before and after SWDC (video coming soon).

I don’t much like shopping, and Christmas (to be frank) can sometimes seem a bit like a racket to me. But I’ll be proud to give these gifts. Their beauty speaks for itself; but the origin story…well, let’s just say I’m a sucker for such things.

Thanks for listening.

Shop online at Mekong Blue

Learn more about Social Enterprise and the Girl Effect:

The League of Extraordinary Women: 60  Influencers Who Are Changing the World  (Fast Company)

The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur (NYTimes)

The Girl

Half the Sky

16 thoughts on “How One Social Entrepreneur Is Tackling Poverty in Cambodia

  1. I want to thankyou for this series it has been fascinating. I confess this has been on my list of places I would love to go but probably never will ever since I saw an article on all the temple ruins hidden there when Tomb Raider came out, The scarves look amazing but sadly I am off work on the sick at the minute so I have to watch the pennies but I have bookmarked it for a later date 😀

    • I never thought I’d make it to Cambodia. I’ve wanted to go ever since I became friends with a Buddhist monk from there in the mid 90s.

      The journey was a little scary at times, but then, all adventures are.

      Sorry to hear you’re sick! Thanks for your note! I wish you well.

  2. fantastic photos and a wonderful post. what a great cause. we’re using a similar socially conscious business model over here in NIcaragua with Life Out of the Box. For ever handmade Nicaraguan product we sell in the States, we give a book to the kids here in Nica to help them continue their education. Love seeing how this works globally & will for sure check out their site. Thanks!

  3. Out of all your posts in this series, I love this one the most (although my favorite picture was of the girls walking to school in the early morning). You are such an adventurer and an inspiration to me, Kim!

    • Hi, Tracy! Thank you so much for the kind words and the great feedback! It’s nice to find out occasionally that the words and photos aren’t just disappearing into the ether unseen. 🙂

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