Khmer Artisanry may be a small dot in the growing SME industry of Cambodia but for founder Seila Polham, the positive inroads they have made as an enterprise are more than encouraging -- achievements that would not have been possible without the hard work of her weavers, her staff and the assistance of partners like Mekong Institute (MI) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
Established with the objective of preserving the fragile art of Khmer weaving, Khmer Artisanry takes great pride in their carefully-woven silk fabrics featuring traditional Ikat technique and using only the natural dyeing process, an art deeply entrenched in history and the culture of rural weaving communities in Cambodia.
Developing a Better Business Structure
Even before joining the MI-IDRC’s Project on Making Trade Work for Small Producers in Southeast Asia’s Least Developed Countries, Khmer Artisanry has already been making waves in Cambodia’s silk/fabric industry, winning, for instance, the Good Design Award in Japan in 2014.
But even Seila admitted there still is much to be improved when it comes to running her business. “Before, we didn’t have a clear process on operations --only production, and management was very low,” she narrates. “When it comes to money, I used to only give a certain amount to my general manager and everything else is controlled by me…In marketing, it was not very clear in the past -- I used to only sell to people who know me or those who come into my shop.”
Through the MI-IDRC Project, an initiative that set out to develop the entrepreneurial abilities of women entrepreneurs and enable their greater participation in the export market, Seila was able to develop a better structure and direction for her business, beginning with the creation of an organizational chart that defines who does what and the line of command for the enterprise’s operations. “After the MI training, I realized, ‘What if there are emergencies? What will my staff do because the money is with me?’ So now I opened an account only for business. We also now have a petty cash system so it’s easier to manage everyday expenses.”
Making better use of an already existing database used initially for monitoring stock, Seila also worked with an agency so the database can be used for other financial processes, including computing sales commissions of her staff, managing pay-in and pay-out and even generating sales reports.
“I also learned that the description of the product – the story behind the brand – is very important,” she says. “So when I went to Germany, I showed them our products and told them the story behind the designs, and they were very impressed. It has made it easier for me to introduce my products, my brand.”
This brand story, now an integral ingredient in Khmer Artisanry’s marketing strategy, has helped better sell the brand to its customers. In addition to the local market, the enterprise has been exporting scarves to Japan while doing consignment with sellers in the United States, Hong Kong and Australia. Since redefining their business’ brand story after the MI training, Seila explains that they noticed an increase in orders. “For Japan, we usually have to wait for the first set to be completely sold. After the training, we emailed them with the product catalogue containing clear information and describing the quality of the product. After that, they placed a new set of orders for 300 pieces.”
Seila remarks that their export plan, another product of the project, is still far from perfect but with the confidence gained from doing business in Japan and the US and the clearer direction that the plan provides, they are hopeful that they can expand more into the European market especially France and Germany.
Building a Brand that Cares
Certainly, there is more to Khmer Artisanry than business.
The MI-IDRC Project provided Seila an opportunity to work with and learn from the stories and practices of other women entrepreneurs in the Mekong Countries, an experience that inspired and strengthened her resolve to work more closely with her community of weavers. “I want women to be empowered. They stay in the community and have lesser opportunity to work so I want to provide them with livelihood.”
Interestingly, it’s not only women Seila now employs; her group of weavers also includes the disabled, two of whom are men. She proudly explains that providing employment to the local people is her business’ most important contribution to Cambodia’s development. “The community people want to work with my business because I allow them time to take care of their family and kids while earning money. They don’t need to work in the factories and leave their families behind.”
Now, Khmer Artisanry has added organic cotton to its product line while staying true to their trademark process of natural dyeing. “After my participation in the MI project, I realized that I do not want to cheapen my products. I want to continue providing people with good, natural quality materials.” Sharing her plans for this new line, Seila explains that she has had several meetings already with the local community, discussing how to work with them in growing organic cotton.
“I feel that I’m a better manager now,” Seila describes, six months after her participation in the MI-IDRC Project. This, in turn, has set off a set of positive, domino-like effects: more confident staff, better partnership with the local community, and a thriving business that stays faithful to its original mission of keeping cultural pride alive.