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Going the last mile and beyond: Empowering women entrepreneurs in Cambodia

Cambodia has been using the EIF programme to take advantage of trade opportunities following WTO accession, including building a strong political commitment for inclusive reforms and a new business and trade-friendly legal framework. The EIF has been supporting programmes in Cambodia that essentially target the well-being not only of businesses but that also impact on grassroots population, particularly women.


Now with plans to graduate from the Least Developed Country (LDC) status, Cambodia is taking a more inclusive and sustainable approach supporting a vibrant entrepreneurial industry and a dynamic private sector. The EIF has been instrumental in creating the right backdrop for partners' support for Aid for Trade and in developing sectors, such as silk, that are supportive of women's economic empowerment.  


In Cambodia, silk weaving is often regarded as a parallel activity to farming, which allows women to generate additional income and brings about positive social impacts by helping to stem migration flows and keeping the family unit intact. Silk is also an important source of employment, with the number of weavers estimated to be between 18,000 and 20,000, of which 98% are women. Women also make up two-thirds of Cambodia's silk workforce. Together with ITC as the main implementing partner, the EIF has supported the move towards producing handmade high‑value silk benefitting poor women in rural areas, most of whom depend on silk production for their livelihood.


Through assisting 1,500 weavers and backing 14 women‑owned businesses in five export markets, the high‑value silk project has served the broader aim of empowering girls and women with cutting‑edge skills in silk production. As a result, the weavers' average monthly income from silk weaving increased by 100% from 2012 to 2014. The 14 women‑owned businesses created 88 new jobs, developed 127 new silk designs and increased exports of Cambodian silk products by 73% since 2012. The growth in exports resulted from the acquisition of new clients and new export markets, the adoption of fair trade practices as well as increased sales to traditional markets. 


The 14 companies have received coaching and advisory services to further develop local sales channels targeting tourists, including in showrooms, hotels, restaurants, airports and shops. They have also gained considerable experience and knowledge in product design, strategic export planning, customer relations management, handling of orders and planning and managing trade fairs. Through mentorship, brand identity and product development, the companies have also upgraded their showrooms and shops, established new relationships with international buyers and prepared new product collections and catalogues.


Training courses on contemporary fashion trends, design and product development have been provided to more than 40 representatives – of which 36 were women from 20 Cambodian silk companies.


The EIF‑funded project has also helped secure markets for Cambodian silk products and has facilitated the participation of representatives from silk companies in nine trade fairs and several business study tours. This international exposure has helped Cambodian entrepreneurs to upgrade their export strategies, which have contributed to increased sales and access to new buyers in the global market. Profits of the 14 companies grew gradually from US$633,933 in 2012 to US$1,103,908 in 2015, and the profit margin of total sales increased from 46% in 2012 to 58% in 2015.


Partnerships have been central in sustaining the impacts realized in the EIF high-value silk project. Strong cooperation has been established with associations, such as the Khmer Silk Villages, to develop the organizational capacity of handling exports. Innovative approaches are being planned to facilitate marketing silk to tourists during visits to weaving communities, such as those organized by Artisans d'Angkor, as well as embarking on e-commerce. The increase in know-how and the experience of the Cambodian companies and their commitment to continue exhibiting a wide range of silk products in the trade shows reflect the longer‑term impact in strengthening Cambodia's silk sector.


Networks of silk producers and weavers have been expanded through village study tours, and silk policy support has been provided through the Silk Sector Development and Promotion Commission to ensure that the silk sector contributes to poverty reduction and women's economic empowerment. In collaboration with ITC and the Cambodia Women Entrepreneurs Association, the Cambodia National Silk Strategy has been launched, with the aim of revitalizing sericulture (the farming of silk worms) and developing a modern, inclusive and sustainable Cambodian silk sector.


Empowering women entrepreneurs in the move towards producing high-end silk is a story of Cambodia's resilience to discriminative social norms. The country is building on its heritage and resources moving beyond a legacy of poverty to bring know-how to rural areas, helping to stem migration flows to urban areas in search of better prospects, which has resulted in indecent work, social vulnerability and ultimately social instability. Working to inclusively overcome hurdles in development has meant facilitating a dynamic inclusive private sector to leverage resources for entrepreneurial and economic growth. Fostering women's confidence and entrepreneurship has paved the way to realizing the silk export dreams in Cambodia, as it embarks on the last mile to graduation and its journey in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.


"I am very happy that my technical skills have improved and I can find new clients. My income has significantly increased and almost doubled from around US$100 in 2012 to US$188 in 2015, thanks to orders from Craft Village, which was introduced by EIF CEDEP I, high‑value silk during a weaver tour." Ms Ros Sarith, Silk Weaver