After a chance encounter found her travelling to Cambodia as a volunteer, Ka-Lai Chan fell in love with the countries traditional craft, and her research took her to the rural countryside. On a visit to Krobey Riel village, situated about an hour outside Siem Reap, she became fascinated by the skill set of the local women who were able to weave beautiful, functional products from natural fibres. She also saw, however, that despite their talents they couldn’t earn enough to support their families.
Inspired by her design background and the women’s weaving talent, Ka-Lai launched MANAVA in 2016, a conscious accessory and homeware label. Her mission? To share artisanal Cambodian craft with the world, while improving the lives and income of this little community.
Women from Krobey Riel village weaving MANAVA’s bags from locally harvested rattan
MANAVA now employs and provides fair income to 15 artisans who handcraft the labels bag and homeware products. Since joining MANAVA, their income and family contribution has increased by 75%! We chatted with Ka-Lai all about her journey to create such a meaningful social enterprise.
You’re a natural creative. What’s your background?
I completed a product design degree from the University of Arts in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Since 2009, I’ve been working as an independent designer for several international designer brands, museums and hotels designing home products and art installations.
So how did you end up in Cambodia?
There are three things that are really important to me: nature, people and creation. These three things give me energy and give life meaning. Even before visiting Cambodia, I had a deep desire to help people in a less developed country and to connect them with creativity and the arts.
By chance, I met a young lady in The Netherlands who was conducting a project in Cambodia, and I took the opportunity to volunteer for two months with her. For me, It felt like the beginning of a dream come true. The Kingdom of Cambodia is incredible. The people are genuine, cheerful and relaxed. The landscape, in particular the countryside and rice fields, are simply magical. Life here is simple and the crafts are stunning.
“The Kingdom of Cambodia is incredible. The people are genuine, cheerful and relaxed. The landscape, in particular the countryside and rice fields, are simply magical.”
How did the inspiration for MANAVA come about?
While volunteering in Siem Reap, I did a lot of research on different local traditional crafts and spent time with families in the countryside. This was such an enriching experience; they were always happy and always laughing. But behind the smiles, I could see they were struggling with many challenges, the most obvious of which was their income level. They earned an average of $50 to $70 per month, which made it almost impossible for them to live within their means, yet many had such incredible weaving skills, particularly in one village I visited, Krobey Riel.
With my entrepreneurial and creative background, I saw possibilities to help them. I then met Baraing Tho, a local creative young man with the same vision and together we decided to start MANAVA.
Ka-Lai & Baraing Tho, MANAVA co-founders
Tell us about the community you’re working with, and how MANAVA’s rattan accessories are made.
We have a sheltered workshop in Krobey Riel village, which is about an hour outside of Siem Reap. Krobey Riel is a small community of around 500 people. Our team of 15 female artisans gather together in this workshop but some of them choose to work from home. This is often convenient for them because they have as many as four to six children to care for.
There’s quite a process involved in creating each product. First, we harvest the rattan from local forests using a sustainable strategy. Then we leave the rattan stalks to dry, which can take up to a month till they’re just right. Then, we clean it and peel off the outer fibre. We discovered a creative way to do this using a beer bottle cap with a pierced hole, which separates the inner and outer fibres in one sweeping motion! After that, we dye the willow with natural powders derived from plants and flowers. The final step is to hand weave the bag or basket with careful attention and experienced skill, which can take up to three days per bag.
“There’s quite a process involved in creating each product. First, we harvest the rattan from local forests using a sustainable strategy. Then we leave the rattan stalks to dry, which can take up to a month till they’re just right.”
Cambodia is well-known for its fast-fashion factories. Why does being a socially conscious enterprise matter to you?
It matters because people matter to me. The women and families that we work with are people just like you and me, naturally kind-hearted and pure. I truly respect and admire the integrity they have for their work, and their traditional artisanal crafts are just remarkable.
Naturally, I believe they deserve a fair income, should be treated well and have the opportunities to achieve certain life skills. As a business owner, I want to encourage an environment where their opinion matters and provide them with the opportunity to improve their quality of life through their indigenous skills sets.
“As a business owner, I want to encourage an environment where their opinion matters and where they learn they can improve their quality of life through their indigenous skills sets.”
Why should the world care about preserving artisanal craft?
In today’s day and age where mass production and speedy consumption is the norm, we can acquire things faster and at a cheaper price but attention to quality has taken a back seat. By and large, I think we’ve grown to neglect what’s important and meaningful, and have less emotional connection to our possessions. Artisan craft helps us reignite that connection through the stories of where they’ve come from and how they’re made. This is what I want to share with the world through MANAVA.
Finally – what’s been your biggest learning lesson so far?
In a country like Cambodia, very little goes as planned. I think the biggest thing I’ve learnt on this journey is patience!
Ka-Lai’s goal for the next year is to provide 35 new women with professional weaving training and a secure job through MANAVA. If you’re as inspired as we were by this label’s incredible story, then please consider supporting their current crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo.
Like this story? Then also check out:
How to set up a sustainable fashion label
All you need to know about organic cotton
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Susannah believes better design can help create a brighter future. A former magazine editor, she now runs ZERRIN and works at the intersection of consumers, brands and sustainability advocacy.