Inside his newly refurbished boutique in Phnom Penh, Bernard Kervyn is jovially confident his nonprofit business is ideally positioned to take the capital by storm.
“People would look at us and say we were arrogant and crazy,” he says, recalling the moment he first spoke to market analysts about coming to Phnom Penh. “But in the first two weeks of business we have made $4,000,” he says of the small store that opened March 24, located a stone’s throw away from Independence Monument.
Mr Kervyn, 57, and his wife, Thanh Truong, 49, founders of Mekong Quilts, are combining their individual strengths—Mrs Thanh Truong a skilled quilt maker and Mr Kervyn an experienced NGO coordinator and project manager in charge of Mekong Plus, an organization specializing in community development—to create jobs for women and support local communities in Cambodia through an artisanal business that has already prospered for eight years in Vietnam. In the past month alone the company has seen sales of its lightweight quilts double, and revenue for Mekong Plus, the overarching NGO, has increased 25 percent a year since its founding in 1994.
Mr Kervyn, a French citizen, and Mrs Thanh Truong, from Vietnam, met in Paris and married in 1989. Four years later, they decided to move to Ho Chi Minh City. Once established, Mrs Thanh Truong started to make quilts in her front room with the help of a regular group of women.
She began selling quilts to locals from their house, and in 2001 she persuaded Mr Kervyn to set up shop in the city. The shop prospered and so did their second store, which they opened soon after in Hanoi.
Last year, Mekong Quilts hired 35 new female staff members in Vietnam, and despite the downturn in tourism and consumer spending, the business has not experienced a noticeable drop in sales.
“Because they are selling to foreigners within the expat community, you can say that word of mouth has played a role in their success,” says Laurent Notin, general manager at the market analysis firm Indochina Research Cambodia.
Although the couple uses the profits made in Vietnam to fuel the venture in Phnom Penh, they hope to employ Cambodian women later this year, once they have acquired enough capital to invest in the idea. However, Mr Kervyn admits that this will take a lot of time and effort.
“The villages [here] are so much poorer than in Vietnam. So we might have to set up a small workshop,” says Mr Kervyn. In Vietnam, he says, the women work on the quilts from their homes, and the homes tend to be better suited for this purpose.
Mekong Quilts currently employs about 200 women, who earn an average of about $2 per day, twice as much as they were earning previously, says Mr Kervyn. Both Mr Kervyn and Mrs Thanh Truong insist that the women they employ send their children to school. “There is no point in helping the women have a better life if they aren’t going to build for the future,” says Mr Kervyn.
He says that a 4-by-4-meter quilt takes up to a month to create and sells for about $150. Half of the cost goes toward labor and material and the rest filters into microfinancing, community development and company expansion.
Mr Kervyn notes that in Vietnam scores of women in local communities are lining up for the opportunity to work for his company. “We want to emphasize the importance of a community development project.”