For Cambodia’s Women Entrepreneurs, Barriers to Expansion May Be Starting to Crumble

Peang Sokha, a women entrepreneur who owns Wattan Artisans Cambodia for 10 years, in her store in Wat Thann pagoda, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, October 12, 2017. (Khan Sokumnono/VOA Khmer)

Although about 65% of all businesses in Cambodia are owned by women, they lack access to finance, training, mentorship and information that could allow more women to grow their businesses.

After six months of job-hunting, Soung Pisey, 24, a recent economics graduate, decided to launch her own clothing business. With $200 as initial capital, she rented a small market stall in Takhmao, Kandal province.

“All of my friends have jobs and are employed because they are smart students in school and they study hard. I am not a witty student; I am just friendly. So, I ended up doing business and life is getting very busy for me.” she says.

Earlier this year, Pisey decided to expand. She bought an additional three-square meters for $15,000 using money gifted to the family on her wedding day and by taking a loan from a traditional community lending association of family and neighbors called Tong Tin.

Pisey works hard in the heat to earn a living from her small business, passing orders to her sister via Facebook Messenger. “I think a lot of my friends may stop calling me out to their parties. I am pretty busy, and I have rejected many invitations because I need to take care of my business.” she said.

Soung Pisey, a clothes seller in Takmao market, Kandal province, Cambodia, is showing her Facebook account of the latest fashion online to her regular customers in early October 2017. (Khan Sokumnono/VOA Khmer)

Despite her success since she opened the business three years ago, Pisey is concerned for the future. In November, her husband opened a new stall outside the market, spending about $50,000 on renovations funded by loans from family and friends.

“When I still have choice, I don’t want to borrow from banks because I don’t want to lose money on interest charges,” she said.

About 65% of all businesses in Cambodia are owned by women, according to the Asian Development Bank. Most are microenterprises, of which more than half employ just one person. According to Sreat Momsophear, head of the Cambodian Women Entrepreneur Association (CWEA), women lack access to finance, training, mentorship and information that could allow more women to grow their businesses. Cultural norms also prevent more women from engaging fully with their careers, she adds.

“Actually, even though they [women business owners] are rice sellers, they are actually an entrepreneur. However, most of them do not realize they are entrepreneurs. They do not have vision, and they keep in mind that they are just a seller who earns money only for their living.” she said.

Sophear founded and directs SOPHIYA Corporation, which includes a travel and tours agency and a spa and massage parlor, among other businesses. She was the first winner of the Cambodian Entrepreneur Award for women in August. She says the key to her success has been getting to know her customers, most of whom patronize her businesses after hearing about them by word-of-mouth. She travels to Thailand two or three times each month to get inspiration on the latest fashions taking hold next door and promotes her businesses on social media.

But, she says, she doesn’t have dreams of world domination. “We do business just to make a living. I don’t have any ambition right now.”

On average, women in business earn less than men and women-owned businesses are concentrated in a small number of sectors. Where the average businessman might earn almost $5,000 per month, the average businesswoman will earn almost half that, according to data from the Ministry of Planning.

To further promote women in business, in July the World Bank launched the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), which will include about $1 billion in financing to improve access to capital and technical assistance. Similarly, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in August announced it was launching a Women’s Livelihood Bond, which it said would benefit about 385,000 women in Southeast Asia. The capital will go to microfinance institutions and social enterprises that are willing to partner with women entrepreneurs.

Momsophear described the process for getting a loan as “complicated” and subject to high bank charges and steep interest rates. “They don’t care if you have a business plan,” she said, “they need your hard title.”

Peang Sokha, 35, the owner of Watthan Artisans Cambodia, which operates a handicrafts workshop and five stores in Phnom Penh, funded the start-up in the 1990s with donor money. “My husband and I can’t close our eyes [and find a new job] and watch a group of people lose their jobs where they have worked for more than five years to feed their families,” she says of her employees. “So we decided to carry on and run it as an enterprise.”

Watthan Artisans Cambodia, owned by woman entrepreneur Peang Sokha in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, October 12, 2017. (Khan Sokumnono/VOA Khmer)

She needs to access more finance in order to expand, but like Momsophear, she is concerned by high interest rates and bank charges.

“I was looking for specific loan for women who are struggling in doing business. I wish there was one, but I don’t think any [lenders] have them.”

She reached out to SHE Investment, a social enterprise that aims to give women entrepreneurs skills and consultation services, for help. “For the first several years, it was very hard and almost impossible to go on, but we have the same willingness to struggle. So, it’s not a big deal for us because we both dare to do it.”

SHE Investment runs a “social impact fund” with other partners, offering women loans for equipment to expand their businesses with a low interest rate. “It’s also crucial that entrepreneurs have the support to be able to become investment-ready, plan ahead strategically, access mentorship, and navigate the often confusing environment of accessing capital,” said Celia Boyd, founder of SHE Investment.

For women to benefit from loans and investment, “it requires organizations acting in the middle that can both support the businesses to improve and scale, and also help the funds to identify potential funding recipients,” she added.

“There is still not enough gender-focused support for entrepreneurs in terms of training, mentoring, and financing programs. Even though women run the majority of businesses in the country, when it comes to representation for small, medium and large businesses, women often get left out of the conversation.”

Soung Pisey at here clothes store in Takmao market, Kandal province, Cambodia, October 2017. (Khan Sokumnono/VOA Khmer)

Pisey has not considered seeking help from organizations like SHE Investment, so the thought of expansion seems a distant dream.

“I am not sure yet if training courses on doing business is important to me now. Maybe when I receive any information about it, I may consider to join, if it really helps me. But I don’t have any contact to get such information.”