Social Business… Cambodia, a look at the country and people who make Elephant Branded possible

James Munro Boon | Founder | Elephant Branded | CIO Look
James Munro Boon | Founder | Elephant Branded | CIO Look

Seven years ago, if you had told me that I would be spending my time between Hong Kong, Cambodia and South Africa, I would have thought you were crazy.

You see, when I was still at University, as an undergraduate my only dream was to get a normal job, earn some money, get engaged, get a mortgage and have a happy life. Whilst the happy life and the engagement have happened the normal job, mortgage and money ideals have changed somewhat.

To be honest, I never intended to be involved in Social business, but kind of fell into it.

Two chance encounters and one lucky break are what have really defined the past few years.

I studied Architecture at University, we were given the chance to design and build a school in South Africa. Blood sweat and tears went into making the school, however after all the effort that went into the build, I was shocked to see children coming into the school without basic school equipment.

After University I was offered a one year postgraduate posting to China, and subsequently a year later offered a job in Hong Kong. The lucky break happened during the two month gap, between leaving my job in China and starting my new job in HK.

Like many people my age, I travelled around South East Asia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. It was in Cambodia that I met Pry and Mey who had just started making bags out of old cement bags. I didn’t know it at the time, but we would go on to become close friends and grow a business together. Whilst coming from very different backgrounds, it is our shared passion to build, make and grow that ties us together.

Pry, the creative genius behind EB, had just started to make a simple bag out of recycled cement bags. I thought if we tweaked the design a little then we could sell some bags to my friends and help raise some money to buy school equipment.

Each bag is handmade from local recycled materials giving local ladies a way to run their own business and every sale helps to supply school equipment to children in need. It really is as simple as that.

When I was younger I used to see business books in my local book store. “How to swim with the sharks of business” or “How to make lots of money quick”. That’s what I used to think, that business was a dog eat dog world where the strong survived by stamping on the heads of those under them. It seemed dirty and slightly sordid. I didn’t want to do that or be one of those guys in a pin striped suit sitting down at board meetings.

Through working with Pry and Mey and Alex my business partner in the UK, I realised that business is about family, it’s about relationships and loyalty. In my mind, business is one of the few things in the world that transcends race, religion and politics, it connects people from completely different walks of life and links the world. In my opinion, it really is the strongest force for good in the world.

Over the last four years I have seen Pry and Mey’s family grow; they now have two sons Thomas and Boy Boy, both of whom I feel like an uncle to. They are energetic and fun, and possess many of the fantastic qualities of their father and mother. However, the world they are growing up in is very different from the one that Pry and Mey were born into.

Cambodia is now prospering, no longer is it the war torn country of old, but the land of opportunity. In the surrounding neighborhoods, new houses are going up and the pace of change in the main city is unbelievable. Even in the last two years, more and more hotels, bars and restaurants have opened.

The dusty roads are still there, however Range Rovers now occupy the roads competing with the traffic of tuk tuks and bicycles.

With this new opportunity, there have also come issues. Cambodia’s forests have been ripped up, logged and felled by shady companies, and the country’s assets and natural resources shipped off through Vietnam to China. Much like the artifacts stolen from the temples and transported away to the European collectors during the civil war, now the natural resources; wood, oil and land are being syphoned off by greater powers, but this time from the East.

Cambodia and importantly the Cambodian people are resourceful and entrepreneurial. Many having lost everything, they are always looking for new ideas and ways to sustain themselves and their families. Their interest is not in aid, but rather in finding the means to start their own business or secure their own lives.

I do belive this is the potential of social business, the ability to give people the opportunity to make their own future, their own businesses and their own life.

About the Author

James Munro Boon is an award-winning entrepreneur, specializing in Start-ups and brand building in international markets. James set up his own ethical company Elephant Branded whilst at University and subsequently runs the global operations part time from Hong Kong. Over the last few years, it has been voted the 18th most ethical business in Britain and one of the top 25 Start Up’s of 2012.