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    Cambodia's Silk Road to Poverty Reduction


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 2/2006

    © G. Byrde

    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 environmentally-friendly 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, modern production techniques, costing and pricing. It created an e-sales web site, 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.

    Shops for foreign tourists and the 13.6 million silk-loving Cambodians have been opened in the capital and in Siem Reap, near the famous Angkor Wat temples. Silk exports enjoy certain advantages. Their popularity in the fashion world never disappears. Silk can be sold as simple fabric or finished products, home ware, garments and accessories. Silk goods are precious but not fragile, making them easy to ship. Most countries have special agreements with Cambodia for free importation or low import taxes on handicrafts.

    But there are obstacles, too. As skilled and as productive as Khmer farmers are, they still produce only a small fraction of the silk yarn Khmer weavers need, not to mention the keen export market. Estimates put Cambodian yarn production at only 2% of national demand. The rest comes from China and Viet Nam.

    At the end of the Khmer Rouge period there were just 15 hectares (47 acres) of live mulberry trees.

    The programme to improve the Cambodian silk sector foresees the planting of a great many mulberry trees, which take only eight months to grow. The number of silk yarn producers is projected to increase from 2,000 to about 6,000. Sericulture specialists will advise on improved techniques of rearing silkworms and processing the cocoons, and on the quality of the silk.

    The 20,000 weavers will emphasize improving the quality of their weaving as well as their ability to supply silk cloth in sufficient quantity and in a timely manner. They will be assisted by weaving experts and international designers.

    Finally, the programme will help to build up export and product development capacities for the silk traders that are organized in associations like the Cambodian Silk Forum or the Khmer Silk Village Association.

    Another difficulty encountered by ITC experts and specialized consultants is the fact that Cambodian farmers traditionally grow rice and think of themselves primarily as farmers and not as weavers. So at rice planting and harvest times there are conflicts of interest and availability.

    Other unexpected problems are due to weavers' poor working conditions, such as with old wooden looms, an inconsistent quality of silk, a dusty environment and inadequate lighting. And due to their limited schooling, most weavers are unable to make full use of their creativity and capacities. There is no division or specialization of labour in a Cambodian weaver community. One family does everything from dyeing and spinning to de-gumming and reeling to weaving.

    "But whatever its limitations," says Marie-Claude Frauenrath, EPRP officer and project manager, "silk does represent a viable livelihood option for the poorest members of Cambodian society."

    Since France was the first country to aid Cambodia's silk culture after its destruction by the Khmer Rouge, and has had a century-long friendship with Cambodia, it is appropriate that King Sisowath's visit to France in 1906 should be followed by the visit of King Sihamoni exactly a century later on 1 September 2006. On this occasion, the Khmer silk community exhibits its ancient masterpieces and its modern ones to silk-loving, fashion-conscious Parisians.

    For more information, contact Marie-Claude Frauenrath, ITC Export-led Poverty Reduction Programme Officer, at frauenrath@intracen.org