Monika wanted to make a direct impact on the impoverished villages around her in Cambodia. To make a difference, she started social enterprise Cambodia Knits. Here’s her Merchant Story.
Originally from Canada, Monika Nowaczyk had been working in Cambodia for three years in the development sector when she recognised that there was a big need in small rural communities for employment.
“Many of these women were unable to finish basic education and the communities that they lived in provided them with very little employment opportunities,” explained Monika. “Although NGOs are doing a lot of great work in Cambodia, we can have a greater impact if we’re able to put money directly into the hands of these families.”
Despite having no business experience, she decided to bite the bullet and open her social enterprise in 2009, Cambodia Knits retailing handmade toys and finger puppets in Phnom Penh.
Monika faced sink-or-swim issues
Monika’s lack of business acumen caught up with her as the business started. She faced operational issues, such as ensuring a consistent supply chain with the knitting communities outside of Phnom Penh, negotiating with factories for yarn and cotton, and quality control problems.
“As these were handmade products sewn by these women at home, we faced many issues with consistency in the beginning. But of course, with any handmade items, this is a recurring challenge. We took a year to hunker down and sort out those quality issues and we are a lot happier with where we are now.”
Working to Provide A Sustainable Income for Women
What started as a group of avid knitters wanting to do good for society, Cambodia Knits now trains all these women in displaced communities to crotchet and knit as a means of earning income. The 11-year-old social enterprise also ensures that all its employees are above the age of 18 and are paid a fair wage per piece they complete.
What keeps Monika going in this business, not for her own “payday” but the payday of these women.“The look on these women’s faces when they come to collect their payments brings me so much joy. These women come from different circumstances but some of them have never been able to earn an income for themselves before as they never had the chance.
“We have one lady that is saving up to fix her teeth and with the fair wages she earns, she can upkeep herself and put money aside for treatment.
Every time we feel like ‘oh this is so hard’, we remind ourselves that we have 100 people and their families depending on this income, so we have to find a way to keep going! It’s a great motivator,” she says.
The company steadily grew over the years to include several consignments from shops in Cambodia as well as in online sales.
Set Back by the Pandemic
Then the pandemic struck and the business lost almost 97 per cent of its local sales due to the closure of stores. Undeterred, Monika turned lemons into lemonade by using this downtime to restructure her business.
A new brand Beebee + Bongo was born. Aimed at the western market, Beebee + Bongo will be a ‘for-profit’ company that aims at channelling its funds back into Cambodia Knits to keep the social enterprise going. The brand takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to precious moments that parents face all over the world and turns them into knitted toys with the principle mascots being an adult buffalo and its calf.
Monika enthuses about her new brand: “Parenting. It is not about doing it perfectly; it’s about doing it with love and a sense of humour. You’re not the only one whose kid decided their favourite food today is not their favourite food, just because they suddenly decided that they don’t like it [laughs]! It’s a humorous approach and we feel this will appeal to a much larger audience as these are situation all parents can identify with.”
All the items created for Beebee & Bongo are by the same communities knitting for Cambodia Knits, which results in continuous employment for these women in accordance with the World Fair Trade Organisation principles. Starting from now, Beebee & Bongo has commenced their Kickstarter to raise funds for the brand. The brand aims to raise CA$20,000 by Christmas day.
“I want people to buy from Beebee + Bongo because they identify with these funny situations. No matter where you are based, sometimes kids do drive you crazy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Cambodian mum or an American one, you’re not alone in this. I want people to support us because they identify with these funny situations,” she says.
The brand will retail finger puppets, plastic-free knitted rainbow stacking rings, sleep sets, stuffed animals and PDF colouring books. Prices range from US$4 for a colouring book to US$189 for a family pack comprising all the products in a fun bundle with an added bonus of a handknitted adult hat.
Advice on setting up a social enterprise
When Monika reflects on her journey thus far, she wants to share the lesson she’s learnt about causes and issues. She offers this food for thought for budding startups to consider: “Make sure you are clear about the ‘problem’ you want to alleviate as many people set up a social enterprise just because they want to start a business without considering that it may not be functioning in a feasible manner to address these issues.”
Despite her setbacks, Monika won’t give up and will continue to work to make a difference for these women. She hopes to garner enough attention with Beebee + Bongo to expand into Siem Reap. She says: “Siem Reap had a massive loss of employment in the last six months and the thought of helping these people has kept the team going as well.”
This post is part of our CandyBar Merchant Stories series where we chat to real businesses to learn about their struggles towards success. We hope it inspires you in your own endeavours. Read more from the series here.