Magazine article International Trade Forum

Cambodia's Silk Road to Poverty Reduction

Magazine article International Trade Forum

Cambodia's Silk Road to Poverty Reduction

Article excerpt

Wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, the ancient Cambodian tradition of women weaving and wearing silk is enjoying a renaissance.

The story started with an exceedingly modest contribution of $20,000 to improve the new-born Cambodian Silk Forum in 2002. An encouraging on-the-spot survey of market possibilities in Europe for hand-woven Cambodian silk products persuaded ITC in 2003 to put $100,000 in an Export-led Poverty Reduction Programme (EPRP). The funding enabled 20 rural weavers in the poor village of Tanorn, 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the capital, Phnom Penh, to increase production and marketing of high-quality silk for export.

In past years they have produced attractive scarves, handbags, cushion covers, ties and table runners. But their lack of marketing knowledge and skills left them with only a small percentage of the profits their products generated.

Within two years the monthly income of the weavers - all women - tripled from $20 to $60, and the average sales turnover increased eightfold. Previously, weavers did no designing. Designs were passed on by middlemen or they copied the designs of their competitors. But this has changed and rural weavers are enthusiastically coming up with fine new designs. They also use environmentallyfriendly dyes that reduce health risks and conform with European Union import regulations.

"But the side effects of the silk revival are perhaps even more exciting," says Siphana Sok, Director of ITC's Division of Technical Cooperation Coordination and former secretary of State in Cambodia's Ministry of Commerce. "Weavers' children, who used to be part of the workforce, are now going to school, where they ought to be. The drain of young women from poor rural areas to Phnom Penh's factories has been curbed. Women's self-confidence has grown with their newly-developed entrepreneurial and community-building skills. Links with international markets have revived the country's traditional products. Among them is the renowned Khmer golden silk yarn.

"Most of all, the increased income from sales of silk has improved living conditions and reduced poverty in villages."

ITC gave advice on community-building, marketing and quality management and organized training in design, modem production techniques, costing and pricing. It created an e-sales web site (http://www.silkfromcambodia. com), catalogues and brochures.

The local partner organization, the Cambodian Craft Cooperation, was coached from the beginning of the EPRP project on how to develop export communities of weavers. They were proud of the Tanorn pilot project and replicated the experience in four other villages. About 100 families saw their lives improve as a result.

A national renaissance

These pioneering efforts led to the development of a national silk strategy in 2005. In a bottom-up approach, farmers, weavers, designers and traders, along with the government and allied associations and non-governmental organizations, agreed on a programme to improve silkworm culture (known as sericulture), weaving and market development. They identified bottlenecks and looked at market links.

If one may mix a metaphor, the renaissance of Cambodian silk caught on like wildfire.

Today Cambodia is exporting silk worth $4 million a year. In five years the goal is to export silk worth $25 million. Exported silk goes primarily to France, Italy, Japan and Switzerland, all countries with a silk tradition, as well as Australia, Germany and Singapore. …

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