Nurturing economic growth: Cambodia’s women entrepreneurs driving progress

From street vendors managing their stalls to innovative businesswomen steering burgeoning enterprises, Female entrepreneurs are challenging gender roles and becoming pillars of their communities, transforming challenges into opportunities and leading innovative ventures.

Hong Raksmey

Hong Raksmey

The Phnom Penh Post


Women entrepreneurs showcase their handicrafts at an exhibition in Siem Reap province. 69 per cent of businesses in Cambodia are owned and managed by women. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/ THE PHNOM PENH POST

June 24, 2024

PHNOM PENH – In the bustling markets and vibrant streets of Cambodia, a powerful transformation is unfolding, driven by the country’s female entrepreneurs.

From street vendors managing their stalls to innovative businesswomen steering burgeoning enterprises, these resilient women are challenging gender roles and becoming pillars of their communities, transforming challenges into opportunities and leading innovative ventures.

According to the 2022 Economic Census of Cambodia, the number of economic entities in the Kingdom increased by nearly 50 per cent over the last decade, reaching 753,670.

Notably, about 69 per cent of these businesses are women-owned. The census explained that these businesses, predominantly in the service sector, employ nearly 2.98 million people, 1.84 million of them women.

Conducted across various sectors, excluding agriculture and government, the census underscored the significant role of women in Cambodia’s business landscape.

Banking on entrepreneurship

Ong Pisey, a 53-year-old artisan from Kravan village in Siem Reap’s Angkor Thom commune, has built a reputation over the last decade for crafting unique clay piggy banks.

Her shop attracts daily throngs of tourists, drawn by her array of designs that include traditional pigs as well as zodiac signs and popular cartoon characters like Minions and Angry Birds.

“Most people buy the elephant-shaped ones for decorative purposes. The elephant banks are still made in the 19th-century style,” Pisey says, adding that she charges $1.25 to $3 for her products.

To supplement her income, Pisey also earns money from tourists by teaching them how to sculpt their own piggy banks from clay.

Yan Marina, president of the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT), is dedicated to preserving the rare craft of Hol Pidan, a traditional Cambodian silk weaving technique which was nearly lost due to a lack of documentation and experts.

“From start to finish, the production of each piece is done according to the traditional rules,” Marina said.

Founded in 1996 by Kikuo Morimoto and led by Marina since 2007, IKTT employed 120 female employees from Siem Reap before the pandemic, when it was forced to scale down its operations.

She said IKTT now has more than 60 women from local communities and other provinces working there, while only 10 per cent of the staff are male.

“We not only provide jobs that preserve our traditions and provide accommodation for women around the country, but also allow their children to be present while the mothers are working. By doing this, women can take care of their children and make money at the same time,” Marina told The Post.

‘Green’ investment opportunity

Tith Sokhom, owner of TK&D Manufacturing in Cambodia, pioneered the country’s first cereal-based straw production to combat plastic use and generate jobs for youth.

After seeing environmentally friendly products being produced in other countries, the entrepreneur began to wonder if Cambodia could do something to reduce its use of plastic.

Launched in 2022, her business produced straws from rice flour using imported machinery, offering a variety of flavours derived from natural sources like pandan leaves and mango powder.

Tith Sokhom, owner of TK&D Manufacturing, produces paper-based disposable straws and plates, as green alternatives to plastic. Supplied

Each straw, durable enough for long drinks, could be eaten post-use or will decompose quickly if discarded.

However, she explained that since her straws are not yet perfected, the factory that produces them is currently being renovated. Production has been halted and will resume soon.

“We are currently producing a wide variety of products including cups, plates, and cutlery made from paper, however,” Sokhom told The Post.

Employing several dozen locals, TK&D now supplies over a hundred items daily to markets including Makro Supermarkets and Sna Dai Me Market.

Sokhom raised concerns about an unfavourable global economy, as well as the fact that local people tend to spend less on plastic alternatives.

She expressed her hopes that the government or other organisations would step in to help her enterprise, whether through financing or tax relief.

Women supporting women

Formed before the Covid-19 crisis, the Wellbeing Advancement Organisation (WELL) aimed to build entrepreneurial leaders by facilitating financial inclusion, capacity building and networking for underserved women.

Sagn Sinara, one of WELL’s three female founders, highlighted their core values, chosen to address common entrepreneurial challenges.

Sinara, an entrepreneurship and tech innovation graduate through the Chevening Scholarship, explained these values in detail.

“Health is our first priority. Entrepreneurs must take care of themselves to support their families. We promote entrepreneurs’ wellbeing,” she said.

She emphasised the importance of financial management for business success. The third value is relationships, with effective communication as key.

“Communication involves engaging with customers, family, and the community, crucial for building support networks and sharing knowledge to develop best practices,” she added.

Chan Pheary, chairwoman of the fifth-term Board of Directors of the Cambodian Women Entrepreneurs Association, could not provide detailed comment on the association’s work, saying she was unable to speak to the media at present.

The CWEA was founded in 2011 with the support of the World Bank and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and claims to represent the voices of more than 500 women entrepreneurs. According to its website, it plays a significant role in empowering women in business and enhancing their impact on the economy and employment in Cambodia.

SHE can do it!

Over the past several years, iDE Cambodia, in collaboration with SHE Investments, has been at the forefront of empowering women entrepreneurs across the country.

The SHE program has supported more than 1,500 women entrepreneurs, providing them with comprehensive, gender-smart and culturally-tailored business support.

This support includes training, mentoring, grants and networking opportunities, all designed to help women start and succeed in their business goals.

Lyta Kater, SHE Head of Impact at iDE Cambodia, highlighted the ongoing commitment of SHE Investments to delivering high-quality services through its integration with iDE Cambodia.

She explained that this integration is set to enhance the impact of their efforts by leveraging iDE’s resources and networks.

“By maintaining an unwavering focus on gender equity and cultural sensitivity, we continue to drive economic growth and social progress for women across Cambodia,” she said.

She noted that despite significant strides, Cambodian women entrepreneurs still face numerous challenges, particularly in rural areas.

“Over 60 per cent of businesses operated by women remain informal, and there are persistent barriers due to gender bias and cultural norms,” Kater told The Post.

Additionally, women in rural areas experience limited knowledge and opportunities and face difficulties in accessing finance to scale their businesses, she added.

To address these challenges, iDE Cambodia, through its various projects and partnerships, has supported over 450 rural entrepreneurs, including family-run businesses, in the agriculture and WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) sectors.

From 2021 to 2023, SHE Investments collaborated with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to establish Women Economic Development Centers (WEDCs) across several provinces.

These centres provide vocational training and comprehensive business incubation training, covering crucial topics such as financial management and digital literacy.

SHE also implemented “Training of Trainers” programmes, enhancing the officials of the women’s ministry to support women more effectively.

“These combined efforts aim to foster women’s entrepreneurial skills and boost their confidence, contributing to a more inclusive and equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cambodia,” said Kater.

scroll to top