Conversations with men and women running small businesses in Siem Reap (Cambodia). Why did they go into business? How did they choose their trade? What strategies help them survive? Each business belongs to a bigger economic story, telling a tale about the wrestle with education, rural-urban migration, and personal aspiration.
Chenda used to work in the fields, but the harvest could not support her family, so she started a microbusiness to reap some cash to survive. Her advice to shopkeepers: be friendly. Business is all about good relationships! The worst thing about working in a market is when other vendors undercut their prices to win over customers. Sometimes, they call out lower prices to her customers even while she is in the midst of a sale! It is frustrating to deal with this aggressive behaviour, but she chooses to stay focused in her own space rather than engage in this zero-sum game.
He’s a friendly guy who always has an eager crowd milling around him on the street, calling out for their fresh fruit juice that he whips up on the spot. One night, another young and enthusiastic guy parked his cart right next to him, offering the exact same selection of juices. Naturally, the crowd split between both men to get their juice faster. Jokingly, I said: now you have competition! He laughed and looked warmly at the other vendor. “No competition. Friends!”
Maret quit school with all her sisters and was told to run a business to support her parents who live in the countryside. (Her brothers continued studying.) She was terrified about going into business because she wasn’t sure whether she would have any customers. She chose to sell meat because she finds it easier to sell than clothes. It brings in daily revenue. People always need to eat, she says, but they don’t always need new clothes. Maret says that she can sell more meat when she asks her customers what they are planning to cook and for whom, so she can recommend pieces which are good for soup, stir-fry, or grilling. (Sales tip: get to know your customers!) When there is leftover meat, she takes it home, and brings it back the next day. (There is no fridge at the market.) After the second day, she drops the price steeply and people buy this meat to feed their dogs. The rent for her stall is USD $1.50 a day.
Ny comes from a family of fishermen, and she has always sold fish. However, during the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, all business came to a halt. Along with everyone else, she was forced to labour in the fields, while scholars and artists were shot. People had to wear black clothes in contrast to the bright cheerful colours you see in the markets today. Today, Ny’s market speciality is ‘prahok’, a spicy fish that is fermented for as long as a year. This quintessential Cambodian cuisine is shaped by economic necessity: the preserved fish provides a reliable source of protein for communities during dry seasons. With more markets popping up in the city, Ny is taking measures to stay relevant to her customers. Her strategy is to present her food more nicely, rather than strewn about haphazardly on the mat, and to focus on her unique value proposition: her seasoned family recipe for prahok.
Thyda* can easily tell if a fish came from a freshwater lake or a man-made farm. She says that fish from the farms are fed chemicals, which make them slimy, and they don’t dry well. Thyda has been in the business of dried fish (and sea snakes) for over 30 years, learning the business with her parents who were fishermen, and then getting the seafood from other distributors when they stopped fishing. She has two tricks for a flourishing market business: beautiful and eye-catching presentation, and high quality products. She always lets her customers try the dried fish at her stall, as they will be more likely to buy it once they taste the quality.
Nas sells meat while her husband cruises the city streets in his tuk-tuk, driving people around. She chose to sell meat in the market rather than clothes because she doesn’t need to pay for the supply upfront (only after selling), making it easier to enter the trade and get started with earning an income. Microenterprises offer the unskilled labour force an opportunity to earn money without educational qualifications, while maintaining a semblance of autonomy (as opposed to working in a factory). One study found that women migrants to Phnom Penh primarily work as garment workers (32.2%), microbusiness owners (23.4%), domestic workers (11.1%), and service/entertainment workers (10.3%).
Rice is a staple food item in Cambodia which puts Sokun* in the pulse of any crisis. During the border tension with Thailand in 2001, all her rice got snapped up, and again in 2013 when a torrential flood swept the land and ravaged the streets. If there is any economic anxiety, her business feels the tremor almost immediately. Sokun started the business when her mom fell sick. She dropped out of school with her four sisters to earn cash, while their brother stayed in school and became a teacher (altho he still works as a carpenter in his spare time.) Her business philosophy is simple: be absolutely honest. If the rice is 2nd-tier instead of 1st-tier, she simply tells her customers. At least they will be aware that the different prices are based on varying quality, giving them a choice for their budget. (Customer and price segmentation)
Early one morning, while sitting around a vendor who was cooking noodles called “Lot Cha” លតឆា during the bustle of breakfast at the market, one lady shared the sad news about her friend’s newborn baby who had just died. The infant mortality rate in Cambodia is high at 26 deaths (per 1,000 live births), compared to 6 in the USA, 2 in Japan, and 31 in Bangladesh. Markets are traditionally a social site where news gets passed from stranger to stranger. Today, we can easily share our emotions and information on social media. But, what compares to the warm empathy found in the embrace of another person?
Srey* (on the left) migrated from the rural village of Cambodia to set up her new life in the city of Siem Reap to earn cash for her parents who are still working in the fields. She joined her older brother who had migrated earlier with his wife and little son, and all four of them live together in one small room room tucked discreetly into the alley. This room is both their private home and a public store, although they bring all the provisions to the pavement during the day (and it goes back into their room at night). School is expensive for them, so her nephew goes to a free primary school, and meanwhile he can be seen helping out his dad and aunt at the shop.
He runs a delightful little brick-and-mortar store stacked floor to ceiling with the most incredible paintings. He paints every day. Huge paintings. Small paintings. Paintings about Cambodian history, religion, and art. His name is Art – that’s how he signs his work. Why the pseudonym? I didn’t find out. However, during the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, the majority of artists and musicians were murdered and those who survived had to go into hiding. Today, art and music flourish brilliantly in Cambodian culture, and it is a reflection of unwavering confidence in his calling when a man calls himself just one word that in recent history could threaten his existence: Art. While he could supply his majestic collection of art to street vendors scattered across the city, he prefers to sell all his work in his own shop. Why? Copycat paintings are endemic among vendors (same-same!), and Mr. Art wants to preserve the originality of his paintings and put these originals directly into the hands of his patrons who take them home all around the world.
Ny has experimented with selling many different things from fish sauces, fruits, and vegetables. She finds it hard to sell vegetables because there is typically leftover and they do not stay fresh for long. What’s next for Ny?
Every morning, Chamroeun teaches Khmer Literature to kids in a rural village, and then zooms to the city on her motorbike to hawk clothes at the Night Market from 6:00pm to 11:00pm. The next day: repeat. Her husband teaches high school Maths, and is studying for his Masters in Public Administration. He studies at night while Chamroeun runs the show at the market since she has more confidence speaking English to handle the torrent of tourists. Of all trades, Chamroeun chose to sell clothes because she finds it convenient to get supplies from the local wholesaler (manufactured locally) rather than importing goods from abroad. You would think their schedules are exhausting from teaching, studying, and running a shop, but Chamroeun and her husband also volunteer as teachers at a Buddhist school. Some parents send their children to train as monks at temples where they learn Sanskrit and Buddhist scriptures and receive shelter and food.
Fresh from the fire!
Chilling with buckets of iced seafood in the humid market in Cambodia: fish, eels, stingray, water snakes, prawns, cockles, you name it. The region’s largest supply of protein comes from the winding Mekong River with over 1,100 species of fish (second only to the Amazon River!) as well as the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, the Tonlé Sap Lake. If you are visiting, you may want to try their fermented fish paste (prahok), fish curry (amok), and sweet and sour fish soup (samlor machu trey).
Shopkeeper Stories is a photographic documentary of small business owners and their trades around the world, sharing their tips and insights. You can connect with the community on Instagram and Facebook @ShopkeeperStories