Hi All – we are reposting our 2016 interview with Monika of Cambodia Knits so that you can read their inspirational story this Easter.
Cambodia has a special place in my heart after having visited there a number of years ago and so it is with great pleasure that this week we bring you an interview with Monika Nowaczyk, founder of Cambodia Knits. Cambodia Knits (CK) is a social enterprise working with marginalised communities in and near Phnom Penh Cambodia. Their goal is to produce beautiful, high quality and unique hand-made products while providing fair and flexible employment opportunities for women to support their families.
What is Cambodia Knits about?
Cambodia Knits is all about fun, quality products made with love. We produce toys for children that are quirky and come with a positive back story, which is why our products come with the name of the woman who made it on the tag. At CK we believe that women are the key to raising their families out of poverty and improving the futures of their children and that the best way to ensure they can do this is to provide them with flexible work opportunities.
In nutshell: CK creates great products that make the world a better place stitch by stitch.
How did you get started?
I started out of my living room, like many start ups, without a clue about running or starting a business. I found 5 knitters and together we created the first products to test in the local market. We also had to develop a language for knitting terms, and later crochet terms, because these did not exist in the local language. There were words for ‘knit’ and ‘purl’ but no words for more technical knitting terms like knit-two-together or make-one-left. We grew slowly and steadily, stumbled along the way, made a lot of mistakes but learned about perseverance and positivity.
What was your inspiration?
I saw in some communities around the capital city of Phnom Penh, that women sometimes received services from NGOs or the government to support their health, education and other needs, but that what they wanted was to be able to earn an income and direct this towards their needs on their own. Women know what their families need and research shows that women direct most of their income towards the needs of their families. I came across and the idea of social business, which is a business that has a social mission, rather the focusing solely on profit for shareholders. Prior to this, I had never wanted to start or run a business, because my personal driving force has always been to contribute to social good. But when I learned about social enterprises/businesses tackling social issues, like under-employment, it really rocked my world! This idea that a business could be created and focus its efforts and sometimes its profit for social good, was a revelation and I was inspired to try to create one myself.
At CK, like at many social enterprises or social businesses, we put people ahead of profits because we believe this results in a great product. We love being part of a community of such enterprises around the world and are inspired every day by the great work being done globally to tackle social issues through positive social business.
What keeps you motivated?
My main motivation is the people we work with. We have some knitters who have been with us since the very beginning and I see how hard they work, how much effort they put towards earning an income so they can support their families. In the darkest times of our business, I felt and I knew in my heart that we had to keep going, keep trying, so that these women could continue to have work. They inspire me with the love they have for their families, for their children and for their communities and they motivate me to keep the business running.
We have one knitter, Chanthou who started with us about 18 months ago. When I met her, she was struggling with quality and I really thought she was going to quit. But her husband encouraged her and she preserved and worked very hard and is now a trainer, pushing other women in her community to try and learn knitting. She has become a powerful motivator in our organization and every time I meet her, I’m inspired to keep going.
Where do you source your materials?
Sourcing is our biggest challenge. Yarn is not produced locally, with the exception of very small amounts of silk yarn. We have spent a lot of time in markets in Thailand, Vietnam and China looking for the perfect yarn and other materials.
What is your favorite piece at the moment?
My favourite item is of course the Sleepy Snoogu. I designed the original SS to help my baby sleep. Sophea is my first baby and she was, and still is, a challenged sleeper. Unlike her other soft toys, I thought if she had one with ‘sleepy’ eyes, we could encourage her more to sleep and stay asleep. It didn’t work, but the toy got so much positive feedback from friends, I decided to try with the CK team to develop a line of sleepy animals. The result, after many iterations, is the Sleepy Snoogu line. To me it’s a reminder that even in the most challenging times, we can create beautiful things and aim for positive impact. At the time when I was severely sleep deprived and very grumpy about life, I never imagined what could become of a small creation of mine.
There are five animals in the Sleep Snoogu. Each has a name starting with the letter “S”. This is quite common in Khmer families, who often name each of their children with a name starting with the same sound. The bunny in the line is named after the inspiration for these products, my very own Sophea.
What are your plans for 2016 / 2017?
This year we are focusing on launching our newest line, the Sleepy Snoogus. We have a crowd funding campaign now on at Indiegogo. We want to push this as our main line and secure wholesalers in new countries. With a successful campaign, we will be able to train up to 40 more producers in a rural community north of the capital city and provide more employment. We have already established links with the village leaders so we’re really excited about this!