“Be Kind; Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle.”
Founder, Bloom Cambodia
Diana Saw first went to Cambodia in 2006, and subsequently moved there at the end of the year to start Bloom Cambodia, a social enterprise that aims to alleviate poverty and save the environment. Through fair wages and working conditions, Bloom Cambodia enables single mothers and other Cambodians to change their lives and for the first time dream about the future. Bloom Cambodia makes new products from recycled rice and animal feed bags that are sought after by ethical consumers everywhere – including Amnesty International!
How did Bloom Cambodia come about?
I visited Phnom Penh in April 2006 with a friend, Dale Edmonds, the founder of Riverkids Project, based in Singapore. During that trip I encountered child trafficking. A single mother sold her newborn baby boy for USD100. I was shocked that a woman could be so desperate as to sell her own baby. That made me decide to move to Cambodia to start a social enterprise to provide jobs for single mothers so that another woman would not feel desperate enough to sell her children.
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
The biggest challenge is cultural. If you think it is hard managing people in general, try doing it in another language and in another culture! After 8 years here I have a better understanding of how to work with Cambodians, and in fact have learnt a lot from them on how to have work life balance, the importance of family time, that money and the accumulation of wealth is not the ultimate aim.
Were there a lot of skepticism from people around you when you first mentioned about your Social Enterprise?
Yes, initially people did not understand what I was trying to do with a social enterprise. NGOs are popular in Cambodia. There are more than 5000 NGOs in this country of fewer than 15 million people. People understand the concept of a NGO, because of things like the UN and its bodies like UNICEF, or the Red Cross. But few people in 2006 knew what a social enterprise was. They thought it was just a business. The problem I faced starting out was trying to explain that a social responsible business is trying to do the same thing as an NGO , i.e., alleviate poverty, provide assistance and create opportunity to those who need it etc. The main difference though is that social enterprises do not depend on donations, but through selling products or services, are self reliant, just like any other business.
Were the locals receptive to the idea of social enterprise?
Yes, I had no problems hiring women when I first started because I provide very good working conditions. Besides the fair wages, I gave the women 28 days holidays a year, 14 days public holidays and 14 days annual leave, which in hindsight was ridiculous, as i learnt even NGOs did not give that many days!
7 years is a really long time! What kept you going for so long?
I honestly have no idea. I think it is routine. There are good days (weeks, months!) and bad ones. Of course there are days I feel unmotivated or depressed that I am not achieving more, but such is life. One cannot be productive all the time.
Other than making and selling bags, how has Bloom grown over the past few years?
I started a guesthouse in Sept 2010, Bloom Garden Guesthouse, in response to the emails I was getting through my blog www.cambodiacalling.blogspot.com, which was my diary for Bloom. People were writing to me telling me how much they like reading my blog, they were coming to Siem Reap, could they meet me for a drink, can i recommend a guesthouse, or tour etc. So i thought, “there’s a market here” and so i opened a guesthouse. But I do not promote Bloom Garden as part of the social enterprise.
Why do you think poverty is still so widespread, despite the aid and NGOs that are there?
Corruption, greed — the reason why there is poverty anywhere in the world. There is an idea called the “Resource Curse” in which a country rich in resources tends to have widespread poverty because the ruling class sells the resources of the land and line their pockets. Because they can get rich that way, there is no incentive for them to help the population. In fact, educating the population only causes trouble for these rulers, as educated people tend to be troublemakers. Just think of most (any?) African nation and you will get the idea.
One of the most inspiring thing was how you managed to inspire the local women to impact their own community- Kagna and her project to feed the people through her own income. How does it feel to be able to have such an impact? Did you expect such a response when you first started?
No, not at all. Kagna is a gem. To be honest, I have had a very challenging time working with Cambodians. My first manager, a woman a year older than me, and a single mother of four, stole bags the team had made and sold them to other shops, inflated receipts, stole enough to buy land in Sihanoukville and then threatened to throw acid on my face when caught! So I was very very happy to have met Kagna, she is as sweet and kind as they come, and she gets it. After working with me for so long (5 years), she understands what I am trying to do for Cambodians and this has inspired her to start her own project to provide assistance in whatever form she can, to her people. I am very, very proud of her. PS: She is going to deliver her second child, a boy, any day now!
What was the funniest/weirdest thing you done in Cambodia thus far!
Some people would say it is eating deep fried insects. Crickets are my favourite! Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Silkworm tastes like corn to me. Another memorable thing is swimming in the river across from Phnom Penh. I was visiting some Cambodian friends who live on an island and at the tip of the island is a beach-like place with soft sand, exactly like at the sea, but we were at the river! Locals go swimming and float about in giant inner tubes and sit in little thatched huts and picnic. Glorious.
Any shoutouts to Social Entrepreneurs wannabes?
All I can say is follow your heart in anything you do. It may not be easy but at least you are doing something of your choosing. At least you are free.
Video story of Diana by Our Better World – simple, powerful stories that will make your heart smile and spirit soar.
Support Diana by purchasing her Bloom Cambodia Bags! Visit their facebook page here : https://www.facebook.com/bloomcambodia !
– Profiled by Lim Zi Song, Photo Countesy of Hylas Choct