Experts say high prices and low production levels means Cambodia is unable to compete
Cambodian silk has few issues with quality, purveyors say. It is softer than the raw material from silk giants like Vietnam and China and becomes shinier with wear. And above all, Cambodian silk is golden-one of only few such types in the region.
But Cambodia is still a net importer of silk, purchasing about 400 tons a year to meet local demand while only producing 5 tons itself.
Indeed, the government recognizes the potential wrapped up in Cambodian silk, nominating it as one of eight prioritized agricultural products and yet officials say the Cambodian silk sector is in need of better support to develop raw silk production and achieve a much-needed increase in supply for the industry.
“Our country does not have sufficient skill in maintaining the [silk] worm or the production process,” said Sokunthy Heng, Cambodia project executive for the NGO Kearny Alliance. “The outcome or the result of the silk production is still low. More technical support is still needed.”
Having managed little in the way of industrialization to date, the silk sector relies heavily on the manual labor of both farmers and weavers. According to Ms Heng, many silk producers in Cambodia tend to finance their workers’ housing, food and other daily expenses, driving up the costs for the consumer.
Moreover, the process of producing Cambodian silk yarn is less efficient and more time consuming without machinery, as farmers must reel the thread from the silkworm cocoon evenly by hand. This manual task is made even more difficult in Cambodia where the size of silkworm cocoons is roughly half the size of those from Vietnam.
Adding further burden to the profession of silk producers is the rallying price of imported raw silk from Vietnam and China, which has increased significantly over the past few years. A two-kilo bundle of imported raw silk is currently worth about $80 compared to about $68 during the same period last year and $55 three to four years ago.
The end result is that the price and quantity of Cambodian silk products cannot compete with those of Vietnam and China in the export market, according to Seiha Heng, project assistant for the Commerce Ministry’s Cambodia Sector-Wide Silk Project, which is managed by the International Trade Center.
“In five or 10 or 20 years, we still cannot compete with China and Vietnam because when the buyers go to them, they can produce in industrial quantity and we cannot,” Mr Heng said. “So in terms of price and quantity, we cannot really compete with them.”
Mr Heng, who has been involved in the silk-production training and development project since its inception in 2007, explained that while investment in the industrialization of the silk sector would be beneficial, Cambodia still lacks the infrastructure to attract investors.
Installing electricity in a silk factory in Cambodia, for example, would “cost huge” amounts for investors, who can more easily set up a factory in Vietnam as much of the infrastructure is already in place, he said.
Additionally, more training in the design of silk products is needed to boost exports, Mr Heng explained, noting that there are now only 10 to 20 local designers who have received any training and are, as of yet, not ready to compete with designers of Thailand and Vietnam.
Since Cambodia’s silk industry currently cannot compete with those of Vietnam and China, the Cambodia Sector-Wide Silk Project has attempted to differentiate Cambodia’s silk products through marketing it for buyers internationally in the US, Europe, Australia and Japan.
“We promote the local yarn and also differentiate the characteristics of the products that we have here and everything is 100 percent handmade and natural products, rather than Vietnam or China that they can produce in industrial ways,” Mr Heng said, adding that Marks and Spencer’s began ordering Cambodian silk products last year and Ikea has expressed an interest in placing orders as well.
Along with affecting the competitiveness of silk products in the export market, Cambodia’s reliance on imported silk yarn has also caused significant job losses in the industry due to its high price. Last year, about 70 to 80 percent of weavers in Takeo province and Koh Dach stopped weaving and some migrated to Phnom Penh to do other work because of the shrunken profit margin, according to Sinoeun Men, executive director of the Artisan’s Association of Cambodia.
If Cambodia stopped relying on imported silk, however, and developed its raw silk production, the industry could significantly reduce poverty in the country, especially during better economic times when demand for silk is higher, according to Nguon Chanta, co-director of NGO silk company Mekong Blue.
“We believe that if we produce silk by ourselves-industrialize the raw silk industry-that will be a very big poverty reduction and very effective,” she said. “When the economy was good… the demand in Cambodia for raw silk was 5,000 tons. So imagine if we produce 5,000 tons, how much money we produce for Cambodia.”