career

How two women took their businesses global, then shared everything they knew.

Hepzabeth Evans and Sonia Lyne have just spent six hours sitting in the dust with twenty women from a tiny Cambodian village, surrounded by chickens, cats and piglets.

And the two Australian small business women are elated.

“I just need to sit with it all for a bit,” says Sonia, through tears.

The pair have travelled to Cambodia to teach rural women skills to help them start a craft business from home. In return, the local women taught Hepzabeth and Sonia their own trade – basket-weaving.

One of those local women, Sangsaveth, has been basket-weaving since she was ten. Today, she makes her living working on a construction site mixing cement and carrying bricks, as well as weaving baskets as part of a cooperative established by Plan International Australia. She’s was eager to learn what she can from Hepzabeth and Sonia. “I want to learn more skills, so I can find another way to earn income,” she explains.

Hepzabeth Evans and Sonia Lyne with the Cambodian women. (Image: Emilie Ristevski)

But the local women aren’t just here to learn – they’re keen to teach too. “I’m very happy and excited to teach them how to weave baskets in the proper Cambodian style,” says Sangsaveth.

Hepzabeth and Sonia’s journey to rural Cambodia began in October 2015 when online craft marketplace Etsy called on Australian sellers to raise money for Plan’s Because I Am A Girl campaign. By the end of 2015, Etsy and Plan’s Make for Good campaign had raised $30,000, enough to provide grants to more than 200 women to start their own micro-businesses.

As part of the campaign, Hepzabeth made a dedicated range of her boutique soaps with delicate silver leaf, and Sonia used her signature tiny embroidery hoops to make necklaces featuring silver-lined clouds (see below for more products made by the talented pair). Both were chosen to travel to Cambodia to share their craft skills with local women, who might in turn use those new skills to start their own business.

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But before they teach, the Australian women must learn. As Hepzabeth and Sonia sit on the ground in the tiny village, they are taught to make the rattan baskets that the local women make and sell for $2-$3USD, depending on the style and intricacy.

Before they teach, the Australian women must learn. (Image: Emilie Ristevski)

Hepzabeth’s teacher, Maosome chides her for lacking the hand-strength needed to pull the rattan tight, but she is clearly impressed by the speed with which Hepzabeth picks up the technique and the pattern. “She’s very easy to teach,” Maosome says proudly. “She’s a quick learner.”

After the baskets are made, the women gather in close to learn embroidery stitches from Sonia. Some of the women make clothes for local tailors in Siem Reap, and they take to the delicate art with gusto, keen to start on their own designs. The women who work in farming and construction take more time to pick up the skills, but are no less committed, carefully packing away the supplies, designs and samples that Sonia has provided.

Sonia knows the importance of developing a skill that you can turn into an income. After careers in teaching and fashion and raising three boys in Melbourne, she rediscovered her love of hand-stitching. But Sonia couldn’t find exactly what she wanted to finish her new projects – tiny embroidery hoops that could be made into necklaces and brooches.

She and her husband decided to make their own laser-cut embroidery hoops and sell them through an Etsy shop – and to Sonia’s delight her new business took off. Women from all over the world now use her hoops to make their own designs. She’s not just a maker, she’s also a manufacturer who provides the equipment for other women to create and sell.

After lunch, the women move to a nearby slab hut where Hepzabeth demonstrates how to make soap. Soap-making is a skill she learned from her grandmother as a child. When Hepzabeth moved to Sydney in 2011, she took it up again as a hobby – and later as a business run from her tiny studio apartment. An upholsterer by trade, it’s clear that working with her hands is in Hepzabeth’s blood.

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Soap-making is a skill Hepzabeth learned from her grandmother as a child. (Image: Emilie Ristevski)

Under Hepzabeth’s guidance, the Cambodian women take turns to blend the specific ratios of oils and a caustic alkaline solution, adding ingredients sourced locally like coconut, essential oil and coffee. The moulds, tools and scales are kept by the women in the community so they can continue the work.

The soap-making process is complex and time consuming (a bar of soap will take up to three months to cure in the Cambodian humidity), but as Maosome reflects, “it doesn’t take very much hand-strength”.

One of the most focused of Hepsabeth and Sonia’s students, Maosome knows that a small business making soap or doing embroidery could free her from the physical labour that is taking a devastating toll on her body.

At 51, with 11 children, eight grandchildren and a husband with a disability, Maosome knows she needs to find new ways to earn money that don’t rely on her physical strength. While farm-work and basket-weaving keep her family fed, she confides that her health is not good and her eyes are failing. The circular marks on her forehead reveal she’s getting traditional cupping treatment for debilitating migraines.

The moulds, tools and scales are kept by the women in the community so they can continue the work.(Image: Emilie Ristevski)
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But Maosome knows the Australian women have a lot to learn from her too, and she’s pleased to be sharing some of the traditional techniques Cambodian women have been using for thousands of years. “I want to teach them to make baskets so they can make them in Australia,” Maosome insists. “I want them to show everyone how well Cambodian women do things.”

What is clear is that these Cambodian women don’t just make baskets well. They go to extraordinary lengths to provide for their family and their community, with their eyes on new opportunities to build a better life.

With the help of micro-business grants from Etsy and Plan International Australia, and the skills shared by women like Hepzabeth and Sonia, these women will continue to show the world just how well Cambodian women do things – and just how much can be achieved when women from across the world work together.

You can see more of Hepzabeth’s work here.

You can see more of Sonia’s work here:

You can read more about the Etsy/Plan #MakeForGood campaign here.

About Plan International: Plan International is one of the oldest and largest children’s development organisations in the world, founded 77 years ago, working in 51 developing countries across Africa, Asia and the Americas and supported by 21 donor countries. Plan is independent, with no religious, political or governmental affiliations. You can read more about Plan International Australia’s work here.

About Because I Am A Girl: Plan International’s Because I Am A Girl campaign fights gender inequality, and aims to support millions of girls to get the education, skills and support they need to transform their lives and the world around them. It aims to unleash the incredible potential of girls by promoting rights, transforming futures and creating a better world for all. You can read more about the campaign here.

About Etsy: Etsy is a marketplace where millions of people around the world connect, both online and offline, to make, sell and buy unique goods. The Etsy mission is to reimagine commerce in ways that build a more fulfilling and lasting world, and they’re committed to using the power of business to strengthen communities and empower people. You can shop at Etsy here.

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