Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Knitters found!

The radio ads, which have only been on for two days, have paid off. This morning I met with our first two knitters, sister's-in-law, who are happy to join our team. They come from a Cham community north of the city and are going to introduce me to other family members who also know how to knit, keeping things in the family is common in Cambodia and it will be good to hire knitters from the same community at the start of the project. I had a look at the samples that they brought and they are quite skilled and with a bit of training I'm certain we can start creating amazing things.

I found out that both of them had made handknit products for sale. One woman worked at a Chinese factory making handknit sweaters for 40 USD a month and the other woman had knit baby items for sale to a person who then sold them at the local markets. What was shocking was how much she was paid per item! For a pair of standard baby bootees, she earned 200 Cambodian riel. In USD thats 5 cents. 5 cents for at least 2 hours work!! The bootees were then sold at the market for 75 cents. The yarn was poor quality, but this is irrelevant. Thyda, my translator and right hand woman, told me there are a lot of 'business people' taking advantage of cheap labour in this way. The women who end up doing the work have no choice and feel that any income, however small, is better than none at all.

I hope we can provide decent and fair opportunities to more women like this in the future... bring it on!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

searching and talking

Deep sigh.

This week, which is still a day and half (Saturday mornings are spent training Yeng's staff at NETPRO) away from being over, has been all about looking for things and people and about talking about things with people. I've driven around the city to all the markets, looking for someone who will import some worsted weight yarn for me. It seems not many market vendors are interested in doing anything other than what they are doing now, regardless of the opportunity for profit. This is interesting! I even told one vendor I would buy over a hundred pairs of bamboo knitting needles if he would source them for me. He yawned and waved me off.

I think I have a lot to learn about doing business in Cambodia...

I've spent countless hours online trying to find distributors in China (a major source of good quality yarn) but all I can get to are the factories and they need orders to be in the tonnes of yarn and I'm not quite ready for that yet.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Stitch by stitch

I guess at this early life stage of this blog it might be pertinent to explain why I am throwing caution to the wind and armed with only my enthusiasm and high expectations, starting a knitting co-op type social enterprise in Cambodia.

It all started when I was in Austria, a 6 year old child of a refugee family fleeing Communist Poland for a better life in Canada. Being so young, I didn’t fully understand the situation we were in, just that we weren’t home and were never going back. When my mother and sister started knitting hats and sweaters, I knew I had to get in on the action. I demanded to be instructed in the fine art of crochet and armed with a crochet hook and a string of yarn, I made my first chain. I was so proud of my creation, I wore it as a necklace and sometimes as a headband. Was my love of all things yarnish born then? Probably not, but I do remember the fascination and awe that stitch by stitch, a new entity was slowly created by my own two hands.

Stitch by stitch. That is what appeals to me most about knitting. It is a slow and laborious process, sometimes monotonous, always meditative, that results in an end product completely unlike what one starts with: two sticks and some yarn. Now, stitch by stitch I hope that I can help women in Cambodia improve their situations through fair, flexible and rewarding employment. Throughout the ages, women have clothed their families and kept them warm in winter, stitch by stitch, and now I hope that Cambodian women will have the chance to help their families (not with warmth, that’s not needed here), stitch by stitch.

Last month, I reentered the world of knit madness when I returned home for my father’s funeral. It was a difficult time, both sad and reflective. Getting back into knitting somehow helped me stay afloat in the emotional tsunami that lands shortly after the initial shock. It was a constant, a comfort, a connection to others. My sister, a knitting wizard, introduced me to Ravelry and the obsessive monster awoke, demanding to be fed more and more yarn, more patterns. It wanted to create, to clothe, to make things!

In the endless hours spent on the Internet looking at knitty things, I stumbled across an article about a woman who set up a small business in Bangladesh making high quality toys and baby knits for export. She’d started with $500 and four years later employs almost 3000 women. I was inspired and saw no reason holding me back from attempting something similar in Cambodia. I’ve never wanted to run my own business as making money was never something I was interested in. My driving force has always been ‘helping people’ at least trying to. I didn’t always know how to apply myself effectively to do that, nor am I a completely selfless do-gooder Mother Theresa type either.

I worked in NGOs for the past few years here in Cambodia and while that experience was rewarding, I’m hooked on the idea that social enterprise has the potential to reach more people, more directly with less strings (and reports) attached. Billions of dollars of aid have poured into Cambodia over the past decade and yet still the majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day with limited access to clean water, health services, or education. Creating jobs for people, helping them earn a decent salary in order to be able to access those things and aim for more… I’m betting its an effective way to ‘help people’ help themselves.

Which is key. Aid is often too much about handouts not enough about sustainability. (I’m reading Easterly’s The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good). So many well intentioned NGO projects have a life span of months or a few years. This is not enough to build anything long lasting and once the project support is pulled, the cracks begin to appear. NGOs should still have a large part to play, especially in advocacy, but I am less enthusiastic then in the past about how effective they can be in a country basically overrun by NGOs. (I could say so much more here, but maybe another installment).

So there will be no Knitting Unlimited, Cambodian Human Rights and Knitting Association or Knit for Peace. Not even UNKNIT. Instead Cambodia Knits will aim to become a profitable business not through grants or donations, but by creating and producing high quality products for sale locally, electronically and through worldwide distribution. I hope along the way we can add on things like preschools at the knit centers, scholarships, or even use profits to build wells, buy chickens or goats, seeds or whatever the women feel their communities need. The ultimate goal is not to enrich some far away investors who provide cash for returns but to enrich the lives of the women we work with.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Getting started

This first thing I need to do before anything else, is get a good translator to help me. My Khmer is very basic and although I can get by at the market and around town, its not enough for talking to people in government offices or making inquiries at factories.

So the search for a translator begins!

I decided that it would be best, most appropriate really, to hire a female translator since I'd like the person involved to take up knitting in order to be able to translate patterns later on. Doing that will be impossible without knowing how to work with two sticks and a string and I really don't think there are too many Cambodian men willing to assault their masculinity by learning to knit. I was quite clear in the ad, stating that we are looking for a part-time female translator. Despite this, no less than 5 men have applied asking "is it ok that I am male?"


Through the interview process I met a lot of interesting women, some with great English but most already working full time and hoping that the part time position could be done in the evenings and weekends. I was almost in despair when I finally interviewed the perfect candidate. Great English, free during the week and genuinely more interested in part time work in order to be able to spend more time with her son and who really understood what I was trying to do. As an added bonus, she is a hibernating knitter. Not for long!