Saturday, January 15, 2011

Days 9 -10: Phnom Penh, NGO visits, Cambodia's dark history

Hey everyone,

We are all back in Vancouver and settling in and adjusting to life back home.   Although our wonderful trip is over, and we are all currently assessing the profound impact is has had on our lives heading forward, we would like to share the remainder of our experiences over the bike trip

Day 9 

The next two days of the trip, beginning with day 9, were definitely more education and learning focused.   After spending the previous day biking 115km,  we checked out an interesting organization.

We visited Resource Development International - Cambodia, an American non profit dedicated to everything water related in Cambodia.   Water health and cleanliness is an important issue in all developing countries, particularly Cambodia.   74% of all deaths in Cambodia come from water borne diseases.

It was fascinating to see the production process behind RDIC's clay/ceramic pot water filters, a simple yet ingenious design and process designed to work effectively and be culturally sensitive (Cambodians like their pots).  The pot filtration system sells for $10, and is designed to last for up to 4 years.

Although the technology was sound and the process was fairly efficient (90+ pots are produced everyday), we learned about the difficulties related to the business side of things.  Educating the public about the need for water filtration was definitely a challenge, and required innovative solutions.  As a result, RDIC also developed puppet shows and other unique branding/entertainment/educational material designed to educate the public.  Related to this, one has to think about water contamination at point of source AND point of use.   For example, if the water comes from a well and is put into the filter,  point of source is taken care of.  But what happens if a dirty contaminated cup is used to drink the filtered water???? These kind of questions have to be addressed when educating the public.

As well, marketing and distributing the product to rural areas can also be a challenge, as well as costly.   The $10 cost for the filters is considered a very expensive upfront cost to most Cambodians, so finding a way to make it affordable also requires unique solutions (selling on credit, discounted price based on reference checks etc.).   We also learned that $10 represented a break even cost to RDIC.

The ethical question of whether these products, representing a significant cost to most people in Cambodian, should just be donated for free was brought up by the RDIC manager.   Without going into a deep discussion about this topic, the consensus answer to this question by our tour group, RDIC and Daniela from PEPY was NO.   If people are spending their hard earned dollars on a significant investment, people are more likely to take care of that investment because they have a financial stake in ensuring the product works as long as possible.   This leads to sustainable solutions to complex problems, and allows for the creation of sustainable and innovative business models to address these problems.     We learned of a story in another town in which another charity came in and gave away water filters for free.  One year later, most of the filters were not working and people stopped caring about them.  The other consequence was that is destroyed the hard work that companies like RDIC put in to serving this market.

Of course, the other side of the equation is whether it is okay to make profits off these products?  RDIC had mentioned that competitor organizations have come in and started selling something similar for the same price or less.   However, the danger has become that in order to maximize profit, some of these companies are sacrificing quality and don't have the same quality control measures in place. (RDIC literally tests every single pot for flow through rate, leakage, etc) in order to lower costs and increase margins.

I (Herman) don't have a problem with companies having a profit incentive to serve a market.  After all, companies create jobs and invest more resources in an industry that has profit potential.  The question becomes, how do we ensure people are not spending their hard earned, limited dollars on bad quality products and being taken advantage of?   Especially those products which can be the difference between life and death based on quality?? Consumer protection doesn't exist in Cambodia like it does in Canada.....Its a question I leave for our readers to think about.  (Market at the Bottom of the Pyramid)

After our visit to RDIC, we spent the afternoon visiting markets and exploring more of Phnom Penh city.

Dinner was fantastic, served at a restaurant operated by the non profit Friends International 

Day 10

Today was another day of learning, but of a different, dark sort.  We briefly introduced the Khmer Rouge in a previous posting.   However, today we saw first hand the brutal nature of the Khmer Rouge regime (in power from 1975-1979) and lasting, scarring impact they had left on the nation.

We first visited the Tuol Sleng genocide museam. (also known as Security Prison 21 or S21).  From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng. At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21's existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership's paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.

We visited some of the prison cells and viewed some of the torture tools used at this site.  It was definitely a sobering and tragic reminder of the evils that some are capable of in this world.  This point was hammered home by the visit to the next site.

Choeung Ek extermination centre ("The Killing Fields")

We visited this site and the first thing we saw was a Buddhist Stupa.  The structure was built as a monument to all those killed.  When entering inside to pay our respects, there were approximately 5,000 humans skulls on display, along with the tattered clothing of those killed.

Hagar International

After spending the morning learning about Cambodia's tragic past, we spent the afternoon learning about Cambodia's hopeful future.  We had the privilege of meeting the young, smart and energetic CEO of Hagar Social Enterprise group - Tim Rann.    Tim talked about the unique structure of Hagar International and the interesting social rehabilitation programs they run for women that really need it (abused, battered women).  The other side of the organization is providing economic empowerment opportunities.  This is accomplished through Hagar's profitable and successful social enterprises!  We learned about Hagar's operation of a mulit-million dollar coffee chain business and a catering business, both organizations that were profitable and highly successful!

Although there is an intrinsic social aspect to both businesses in that they provide opportunities to women to learn important transferable skills in the hospitality industry, it was interesting to note that Tim's assertion was that these businesses were not successful because of the marketing of the social mission behind it, rather, because they provide high quality goods and services in a competitive marketplace...and consumers were rewarding them as a result.  An important lesson to those interested in creating "social" ventures.

After a full day of learning activities, we rested early as another 5am start was on the horizon due to another 85km of biking from Phnom Penh to our one night homestay location in the farming village of Doeurm Pour.

No comments:

Post a Comment