Clean Green Story #2: MANAVA, impacting the life of Cambodian women

We met Ka-Lai Chan, a vibrant young woman, at Pages Café to talk about MANAVA, a social-enterprise that she co-founded 2 years ago. If you don’t know MANAVA, it aims to create handcrafted baskets and bags together with Cambodian female artisans from the village of Krobey Riel (10 km away from Siem Reap). Discover with us Ka-Lai’s story, what drove her to start this adventure and what MANAVA is all about in this new Clean Green Story (and read until the end for a special offer)!

Manava - basket

From the Netherlands…

This amazing story starts in the Netherlands where Ka-Lai was working as a product designer. Designing products was a way for her to share stories while showcasing the beauty of nature —her biggest source of inspiration. Although she thought she had everything figured out professionally speaking, Ka-Lai followed a life&business coaching in Utrecht… which made her realize a few things about herself. Amongst these, traveling, discovering new cultures, and helping people through the stories she could share about them were missing pieces.

She then had a eureka moment: what if she went to a country to work with artisans that could gain from creating something inspired by their culture, and then share these products with the rest of the world? And that’s what she did!

… to Cambodia!

With her idea in mind, Ka-lai still needed to figure out the shape of her project and where  to establish it. She soon opted for Cambodia to help on a project about art and disability, and had in mind to come back home after two months. But falling in love with Cambodia and its amazing culture she decided otherwise. During her stay in the country, Ka-Lai met Baraing Tho who was already working with rattan weaver artisans. Baraing was excited about her idea to start a collection and, as he knew a lot about weaving, was the perfect “professional match”. The two then decided to join forces to create MANAVA!

Ka-Lai and Baraing holding one of MANAVA's creations.
Ka-Lai and Baraing Tho holding some MANAVA's creations.

Building the brand

Baraing then introduced Ka-Lai to some women from the Krobey Riel village, famous for its rattan weaving techniques. Luckily, these women were enthusiastic about working with them. The only thing missing was a name for the brand. How did they come up with it? They focused on what the brand meant to them and finally chose the term “MANAVA” which means “humankind” in Sanskrit (a language of ancient India with a 3,500 year history). As for the logo, it is inspired from traditional khmer Kbach symbols, just like the baskets they make.

We can indeed see on the baskets traditional patterns (such as the fish tooth, the dragon’s spine or the lotus). It is a way for MANAVA to pay tribute to the Cambodian history. Those symbols appear in ancient drawings, pottery and carvings in temples.
Kbach symbols (that can be found on ancient temples) is what inspired the design of MANAVA's products.

Supporting the women of the village

MANAVA would not be a social enterprise without a social purpose. Ka-Lai and Baraing decided to provide the women of the village with a salary increase of 80% in comparison to what they earned before. In addition, they are planning to teach them “life qualifications”. This would address subjects such as family planning, financial management and domestic violence. These workshops are conducted by the Women’s Resource Center, who already provided an introduction workshop to know the women’s needs. MANAVA is also planning to offer English classes for the women’s kids, to meet the women’s own demand.

Respecting the environment

Before creating MANAVA, Ka-Lai realized that nature, and its preservation, were important for her. This is reflected in the way the social enterprise works. First of all, the plant used to make the products, the rattan, grows naturally (on Tonle Sap lake for instance). The suppliers know how much is needed and cut only the necessary to leave enough rattan for next season. Ka-Lai and Baraing also plan to research about coloring as they want it to be as natural as possible. For the packaging, they try not to use any plastic and replace it with cardboard and newspapers. Ka-Lai also wants to teach the women which materials are sustainable, the cons of plastic and how to avoid using it. Their goal, when they will be completely stable, is to do everything in an environmental-friendly manner (which we strongly support!).

Ka-Lai showing us some rattan, the plant that they used to create all of their products.

Overcoming challenges

Creating a social enterprise is not an easy task. Indeed, Ka-Lai and Baraing Tho had to face some challenges to ensure the stability of MANAVA.

       Find the right team and organization

As Ka-Lai told us, it was quite difficult in the beginning to find a structure and the right people to work with. They noticed, for instance, that their first weaving teacher did not want to share her knowledge with the women in a fear that they would not need her anymore after the training.

It was also hard to be right on schedule for the team. Sometimes, hotels would make big orders, which could not be filled due to the lack of employees and therefore had to be cancelled. A balance has to be found. After two years, the team and Manava are becoming stable and have instaured a lot of trust between each other. Indeed, only a 4 women were working with MANAVA at the brand’s beginning. Now, 13 women are working with the social enterprise, and 12 new women are currently receiving training to join the team!

Ka-Lai and Baraing with some of the women working with MANAVA.

     The salary

Unexpectedly, the women’s salaries were also not an easy story. At the beginning, they were paid the same salary every month. But Ka-Lai quickly realized the women were working quite slowly. With Baraing Tho, they  then decided to pay the women per product done… and it works much better! The women are motivated and are working faster. Indeed, they didn’t like getting a salary: they felt like they were owned and prefered the freedom of managing their own time.This allows them to take time to take care of their children, for instance.

     Finding funds

The financial side is often a struggle when you launch your own project. As Ka-Lai told us, they basically started with almost no money. They were therefore limited in what they could do, which could be quite frustrating. They eventually launched a Crowdfunding campaign in October 2018, which helped them gather around 5,000$. After two years and a half, Ka-Lai was happy to tell us that MANAVA is doing quite well financially !

Tips for fellow social entrepreneurs

When asked about the tips she would give to people who would want to start their own social enterprise, Ka-Lai’s answered swiftly “Get some financing and be patient!”. More seriously, she told us that the key for a social entrepreneur is to believe in yourself and your project. It is also important to have a clear plan in mind for your business and how to get your income to avoid losing time (and money). Ka-Lai also insisted on the importance of taking time for yourself. When you work for your own enterprise, it is easy to work forever. Ka-Lai learned this at her expense and decided to take some time to focus on things that give her energy and allow her to clear her mind.

Future plans for MANAVA?

It is still the beginning for MANAVA, and Ka-Lai has a lot of ideas for the future of the brand. She wants to partner with other social enterprises. As she said: “There are so many beautiful crafts and it will be even better to create new products and support each other!”. The brand is also starting to export its products: some are already being sold in Europe, and they even received a big order from California. Finally, Ka-Lai and Baraing want to find new ways to bring support to the women working with them. Ka-Lai shared her admiration for them, telling us that despite their debts and familial issues they keep being so welcoming and are always laughing and happy.

Manava's exhibition of products
Some of MANAVA's lovely products.

What started as a simple idea quickly grew into a real project, impacting positively the life of many Cambodian women. If you want to discover more about MANAVA, you can check their website (insert link). They sell products online and in the stores Soieries du Mékong, Shinta Mani hotel and Navutu Resort in Siem Reap. Don’t hesitate to check them out!

Promises are made to be kept, so here is the surprise we promised you at the beginning of the article…. a very special discount code of 20% on MANAVA’s bag collection! To take advantage of this offer, just use the code cleangreencambodia19 until the 12nd of June 2019 on MANAVA’s website.


Did you like this article? Do you have any thoughts about starting your own social-enterprise? Don’t hesitate to share them in the comment below ! You can also check our first Clean Green Story: A zero-waste trip around the world.


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