That time I went to Cambodia and worked in the BEST JOB EVER by Rosa Borg.
When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Or, in the case of the disabled female artisans at the Cambodian Handicraft Association (CHA), make quality silk handicrafts, learn life skills, form a tight sisterhood of friends, and generally excel at being inspiring. For the final three months of a now distant 2014, I (Rosa Borg, roving Trade Aid volunteer) worked alongside the 30 members of Trade Aid’s Cambodian craft partner CHA to develop their new cotton and silks range. And wow, what a stellar time it was. There is too much to say about this project. My very patient friends and family know this only too well. But across the course of these next three blogs, I will endeavour to offer a short synopsis/taster of my experience as a roving product developer and the knowledge I gained on the grassroots value of fair trade handicrafts.
So let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. The CHA project cropped up under Trade Aid’s development arm in which funding through a strategic partnership with the New Zealand Aid Programme of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is offered to international partners to promote the sustainable growth of their businesses. The ol’ give a man a fish versus give a man the means to catch a fish rhetoric. The Cambodian Handicraft Association fit the bill for such support as despite its great work and great potential, it was facing some business challenges. The organisation, which works to train disabled artisans in handicrafts using silk woven by similarly dependant weavers, had suffered the impacts of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Raw silk prices had been pushed up and the group was increasingly competing with machine manufactured goods in neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. This rising imports/exports nature of business in Cambodia meant local haberdashery suppliers were being pushed out of the market, so CHA was increasingly susceptible to international market prices when purchasing items to finish their silk products. Naturally, this was impacting its partnerships with international buyers, including our very own Trade Aid. To counteract these woes, the Trade Aid development team had the idea of sending a Kiwi designer to Cambodia to help develop a new niche for CHA, separate from their existing products, which could provide them an edge in the market. Utilising their hand-woven cotton rather than their silks could be the cornerstone of this, Trade Aid thought. The idea was posed to CHA’s founders, with the response coming in thick and fast. Yes, they would love to receive some product design support thank-you very much.
And this was where I came in. I had been volunteering at Trade Aid’s head office for the best part of six months when I decided it was time to head off on a post-university what-am-I-doing-with-my-life OE. But having slight attention deficit issues, the idea of just being on holiday for months at a time did not compute with me. I was going to need something more solid to do. The Asian continent was on the cards, and a lightening bolt moment occurred when I was Googling voluntary work in the region. There are Trade Aid partners all over Asia. Maybe they could use me? Word then started getting around the Trade Aid office about a design development project that was in the pipeline in Cambodia. Coming from a background of design and development and with a love of Cambodia, this sounded to me like one ultimate job. I felt so eager to be considered for the position that I decided rather desperately to promote myself to the development team. Uncannily, this paid off. Trade Aid’s development team said yes, they would love to have me take up the role thank-you very much. To me, this was the most exciting career development I had ever had.
In the build up to my OE departure, the Trade Aid craft team gave me briefings on the aims and hopeful outcomes of the Cambodian Handicraft Association design development project. This involved a lot of print outs and a lot of excitement (predominantly on my behalf). Tangible goals included coming up with around 20 cost effective, saleable handicraft designs that could be created by CHA artisans, with a particular focus on the use of the group’s cheaper and more user-friendly cottons. Brainstorming took place to think of products that could fit this bill, and though I was initially lacking some gusto, the creative ball soon started to avalanche after arriving in the Asian continent. As I made my way through Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia on (a geographically inefficient) route to Cambodia, I was constantly inspired by products I saw on the local market, by urban colour combinations, by people’s street style, by the general visual feast that is South East Asia. Having an actual excuse to visit every fair-trade handicrafts shop that I could get my Google Maps mitts on during this travel was outrageously pleasing. Was this job for real? You could say I was pretty eager to get to Phnom Penh and get to work, with said ‘work’ being the subject of blog post 2.0.