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Singapore’s Social Entrepreneur Diana Saw makes things BLOOM in Cambodia

By: Ginger Posted: June-19-2010 in
The Classic Messenger
Ginger

You started Bloom in September 2006, how long was that after your Cambodia holiday which shocked you into action?

The decision was swift as it was simple: move to Cambodia to provide jobs for poor women. I first
visited Phnom Penh in April 2006 and was back the next month to look for a house. My partner and I relocated to PP the following month, in June. Not knowing anyone or anything about business in Cambodia, it took me three months before I started Bloom.

What in particular did you see that made you want to do something? (We’re wondering if you’ve gone to other 3rd world Asian countries and seen similar? If yes, what was different about Cambodia?)

My first visit to Cambodia was with Dale Edmonds, who runs Riverkids Project, an anti-child trafficking NGO. I accompanied Dale as she successfully intervened in a attempted sale of a baby by her mother. I felt pity for the impoverished mother who was subsequently jailed. So where RK helps children, a laudable job in itself, I decided I would help poor women–may they never know such desperation.

How did you start the BLOOM social enterprise? Did you have a local partner? Was there a lot of red-tape? What were the toughest challenges?

I approached the job placement arm of an NGO in Phnom Penh (PP). There are many NGOs who train poor Cambodians, but what this country needs is jobs. You can train people all you like, but if no one employs them, you’ll have frustrated skilled people who are unable to use their
skills. Or you may end up with a situation like the Philippines, where university graduates have to become domestic helpers in foreign countries.

I didn’t have a local partner. It is easy for foreigners to start a business in Cambodia–hardly any
red tape. Just pay USD260 a year for a business visa. Then you have to apply for a business licence and pay various taxes. People can worry or complain about the corruption in Cambodia, but it is no more than a nuisance.

CHALLENGES:
1. language
2. cultural misunderstandings
3. lack of infrastructure (internet is hugely expensive and the post and telephone networks,
unreliable)
4. lack of proper healthcare
5. for a social enterprise operating in Cambodia, the challenge is taking on the many NGOs (who get donations) on the one hand, and capitalist (profit-obsessed, so with lower costs) businesses on the other.

Apart from hiring and training locals, have you considered setting up cooperatives/micro-financing like those done by Muhummad Yunus in Bangladesh?

Bloom has a savings plan for staff. Every month staff are encouraged to put away a percentage of their income which goes towards buying a sewing machine. Bloom will then subsidize the cost of the machine. With the machine, workers will be able to become small business owners, supplying bags not only to Bloom, but to other sellers, like small shops in the tourist markets.

Have you considered selling your designer bags in Singapore or via online? Would Phnom Penh have the postal facilities for this?

My friends are really sweet, organising Tupperware type parties for Bloom bags. You can also buy them from RK (www.riverkidsproject.org), and all profits Dale makes goes towards RK. The biggest hindrance to our growth is the high courier charges from Cambodia. (USD14 a kg to Singapore for a parcel below 10kg). Having said that, we do have customers who buy bulk, in SG, US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and France, who find it worthwhile to pay for courier charges.

Many schools in Singapore are moving towards CIP (Community Involvement Projects) themed overseas trips instead of the usual tours. Is there any area they can help you in? (Of the top of my head, they can help you a lot with publicity about the café and your bags and possibly sell some of the merchandise back here in Singapore)

I think those are good ways to help, but the main thing is to spread awareness about workers’ rights and what it means to be an ethical, or intelligent, consumer. Young people should not simply purchase things but give a thought as to where those things come from and who made them and how were the workers treated when they made them. I really doubt anyone wants to be an accomplice in the exploitation of workers. At garment factories in Cambodia, for instance, workers are paid a minimum wage of USD50 a month, for a 48 hour work week. How much did you pay
for your branded T-shirt that says “Made in Cambodia” on its label? How much did the teenage girls who made the shirt get paid?
*******

Source: Singaporean Entrepreneurs

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