Improving the livelihoods of Cambodian silk entrepreneurs

2 May 2013
ITC News

ITC silk project helps enhance the skills of silk weavers and reduce rural poverty.

Life is changing for 21-year-old Sreymom Heng, who lives with her parents in the village of Mreas Prov, in Cambodia’s southern Takeo province. She is one of 700 weavers who have seen a nearly 40% increase in their income thanks to the two-year ITC project to improve to country’s silk industry.

Two years ago Heng knew little about the market demand for the silk scarves and smooth fabric she produced. Since, ITC’s silk project has helped her to increase her monthly income to between US$ 800 and US$ 1,000 from selling an average of 400 scarves and 450 metres of fabric. This is twice as much as the family’s traditional income from rice cultivation. ‘My products have improved both in terms of quantity and quality,’ said Heng, ‘and we receive more and more orders now.’ The project, which was launched in 2010, is funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The silk project sets out to alleviate poverty among 39 rural weaving communities by improving technical skills, enabling weavers to develop new products and designs that met buyer requirements and establishing new marketing channels.

Poor farmers and producers living in rural areas make up 85% of the Cambodian population. In the silk weaving industry, an estimated 20,000 weavers, the vast majority of them women, constitute the largest workforce. Most of them are contract labourers working for intermediaries such as middlemen, traders or associations, who supply the raw materials and collect the finished products.

Strategic sector

After assessing the export potential of various sectors, the Government of Cambodia identified the silk industry as a strategic area for poverty reduction. Silk weaving is labour intensive and can directly contribute to job creation, particularly in rural communities.

According to Pan Sorasak, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Commerce, the silk industry can also help alleviate the pressure on urban areas resulting from an accelerated rural exodus. The sector is not only promising for the country’s economic development, but also contributes to the economic empowerment of women and helps preserve Cambodia’s rich cultural heritage, according to Cambodia’s Diagnostic Trade Integration Study.

Raimund Moser, an ITC Project Manager, said that the income generated from handicraft production helps rural producers rise out of poverty and is likely to have wider long-term benefits. ‘Many of these rural households invest the additional income generated into education, with strong positive effects on social and economic development,’ he said.

The ITC training programme focused on improving the skills of weavers at different stages of the production process: spinning, reeling, warping, dyeing and weaving. This has resulted in better quality products, more efficient production methods and the introduction of new and innovative designs matching international fashion trends and buyer requirements.

Heng, for example, has learnt new skills such as fly-shuttle loom weaving, dyeing, design, costing, pricing and marketing, and turned her knowledge into practice. ‘In the old days I used the traditional loom, which could weave only one metre of fabric a day,’ she said. ‘But now I’m able to weave three to four metres by using the improved technique and equipment, as well as the shuttle-loom weaving skill.’

Meanwhile, her newly acquired skill of warping preparation allows her to work with less help and produce more. ‘By using traditional warper rolling, I needed four people to help and could only complete two warps a day,’ she said. ‘With the new technique I need only one person to assist me and I can complete up to five warps a day.’

Newly established village groups now specialize in different parts of the production process. According to Chomnab Ho, Marketing Manager of the Khmer Silk Villages Weavers’ Association, this results in a more efficient workflow, higher-quality products and an increase in orders. ‘There has been an improvement in the production chain in terms of quality and quantity, which enables the association to receive more orders from buyers,’ he said.

The association worked closely with ITC, conducting most of the field-based capacity-building activities for weavers and setting up a network of field-based trainers. The presence of locally embedded extension officers ensures that the results of the project will be sustained even after the ITC project ends. ‘The local association is capable of providing assistance in technical issues after the completion of the project,’ said Ho.

Win-win project

At the same time, being involved in the project has also helped the association itself, particularly in terms of strengthened business management and increased knowledge of market trends and international markets. ‘The association has gained more clients both domestically and internationally,’ said Ho.

Based on the achievements of the previous projects, a new silk project was launched in September 2012, with a budget of US$ 1 million. This is part of a larger programme that aims to diversify Cambodia’s export economy and reduce its vulnerability to external trade shocks resulting from dependence on a limited number of products and markets. The new project will be implemented by ITC and funded by EIF Trust Fund, which helps LDCs become more active players in the global trading system by assisting them in addressing supply-side constraints to trade.