Monday, May 4, 2015

Is "social enterprise" just a buzzword?

I wrote the following post back in October but never ended up publishing it.... I'm not sure why I forgot about it! Updated notes in []

Yesterday [25 October 2014] I went to Cambodia's annual Social Enterprise Conference at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) with my friend and coworker Sothea. I have to admit I didn't expect much, but it turned out to be more interesting than I anticipated.

Sothea was excited for the conference. I'm pretty sure she's going to start her own business some day.
A lot of this conference focused on whether or not an NGO should run a social enterprise and what that might look like. In the morning, there was a debate with panelists working in this field, and in the afternoon, I joined a session discussing the mechanics of an NGO starting up a social enterprise. The problem with this debate was that "social enterprise" was not well-defined--it was clear to me that the two sides were not really disagreeing with each other, but were defining "social enterprise" differently. In fact, the definition was so unclear that during the Q&A session after the debate, a Cambodian student asked, "What is 'social enterprise,' exactly?"

The short answer, I suppose, is that a social enterprise is a business that aims to better society in some way. But some of these NGOs seem to think you don't need to be turning a profit to qualify. And lots of businesses better society without the "social enterprise" tagline. For example, a soap manufacturer is selling a product that improves hygiene and keeps people healthy, but I don't think Unilever or Proctor & Gamble would call themselves a social enterprise.

Panelists debating "Should NGOs run social enterprises?" On the left, the against side: PSE Institute (an NGO), Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise (a for-profit business). On the right, the for side: Teuk Saat 1001 (NGO) and Friends International (NGO). The moderator in the middle seemed to be a freelance consultant, but it was a bit unclear who he was.
I have to say, the "against" side really kicked the "for" side's butt. The against side pointed out that businesses run by NGOs can distort the market through multiple mechanisms. Maybe because Friends International was sitting on the "for" panel, they got the brunt of the criticism. The against side pointed out that Friends was cross-subsidizing their failing businesses (for example, a welding enterprise) with donations to the NGO. Other competing businesses would not have such a safety net. Additionally, with an NGO subsidizing the business expenses, the enterprises are able to sell their products and services below market rate, thereby (artificially) driving down the prices for everybody and harming competing businesses--the very businesses Friends is supposedly training their students to go out and work for (not to mention that the people at those businesses need jobs, too).

I was also shocked to learn that Friends International does not pay the staff of its restaurants because they are providing those staff with vocational training to work in restaurants. How is this not slavery? All staff at any restaurant, "social" or not, have to receive training. How is it acceptable to not pay employees just because you're giving them training? I must be misunderstanding what's going on, but Friends did not deny anything when the other side of the debate accused them of this no-paying behavior--and you'd think they would have denied such behavior if it weren't true. The "against" side pointed out that not paying their employees was giving Friends Restaurant a competitive advantage over other restaurants, because they had eliminated a major expense that others could not eliminate (not to mention they can charge way higher prices by advertising to foreign tourists as a social enterprise).

However, the "against" panelists were not opposed to an NGO starting a spin-off business. In fact, they recognized that an NGO might really understand a community's needs and devise an innovative market-based solution--but that spin-off business should be run as a for-profit business separate from the non-profit NGO, subject to market forces and responsible for all its own business expenses. I 100% agree with this.

During a separate discussion session after the debate, one of the topics was whether a social enterprise should register with the government as a for-profit business or a non-profit organization. The benefit of registering as a non-profit, of course, is that non-profits do not pay taxes. But if you're an enterprise aiming to turn a profit, how is it possibly acceptable to register as a non-profit? Some were arguing that because a social mission is the first priority of a "social enterprise," the company won't engage in any nefarious cost-reducing activities (e.g. corruption and corner-cutting) so they won't be able to compete with other companies that do engage in those activities. Well, my response to that is evading taxes makes you no better than the logger who bribes an official or the construction company that skimps on concrete. Taxes have a social purpose, they keep society running, they pay for education, health care, infrastructure, etc (yes much of it is lost to corruption in Cambodia, but still! paying your taxes is the right thing to do!). You have to beat the competition with a better-value product or service, not by cheating the system.

One person in this discussion brought up the idea that there should be a third category of registration for social enterprises, with some tax breaks and other concessions but not as much as given to an NGO. I call bullpoop. This would be ripe for corruption. Social enterprise is so ill-defined, how can you possibly determine if a company would qualify? How would you differentiate between Unilever, which sells hand soap, and WaterSHED Ventures, which sells a plumbing-free handwashing station? Plus, anybody could claim a social mission and cheat the system. For-profit and non-profit are fairly well-defined, and an organization needs to be honest about which category they really belong to.

Here I am admonishing people who think it's ok to register a "social" business as a non-profit in order to gain a competitive advantage by evading taxes.
Something that really bothers me about social enterprise in Cambodia is that many people still have this mindset that you need to get the money from (relatively) rich Westerners. There is a pattern of NGOs starting restaurants and handicraft shops targeting foreigners to fund completely unrelated, traditional NGO-type activities, often while claiming that they have provided "training" to underprivileged Cambodians to provide the food or product to foreigners--they are basically turning tourists into donors, still looking to outsiders for support.

This is very different from the social enterprises I'm used to in India. Indian social enterprises are selling products and services to the communities they are trying to help (check out Villgro for some examples). In India, social enterprises treat people at the "bottom of the pyramid" as consumers rather than as beneficiaries of donations or programs; in Cambodia, many social enterprises still see the poor as beneficiaries and foreigners as the only viable consumers.

But treating people like consumers empowers them to make their own decisions about what they need and want. And if they choose their own products and services, if they invest their own money, they are much more likely to actually use these products and services. The poor are often willing to spend, or take out loans, more than you might think--the poor are viable consumers, you can build a successful business by selling to the poor. Cambodian social enterprises need to stop emulating the donor model.

(Not-so-side note: many of these outward-looking enterprises seemed to be dreamed up by foreigners, not by Cambodians. If Cambodians in Phnom Penh had access to the same resources as Indians in Bangalore, I bet the Cambodian social enterprise sector would look a lot more like India's. Perhaps part of the problem is that many of Cambodia's social enterprises aren't truly homegrown, but started and run by expats.)

The restaurant thing in particular I don't get. How is Friends Restaurant "social" but other restaurants are not? I'm writing this blog post from Xotique Coffee and Bakery, which as far as I know does not define itself as a social enterprise. But most employees here are working to pay for their college education, and they regularly come over to my and other foreigners' tables to practice their English--working at this cafe both pays for college and enhances English skills, which are essential in today's job market. Certainly then Xotique is providing people with an opportunity to improve their lives. Is that not a positive "social" cause? Why is Friends' restaurant any different, any more social? Why should Friends' restaurant get out of paying taxes but not Xotique? I guess this goes back to my point that "social enterprise" is nebulously defined--and that might render it a meaningless buzzword.

How can we define this term so that it actually means something? What does social enterprise mean to you? And is it a problem that it means something different to everyone, or should we be working towards a single definition that everyone can agree on? Or is a definition not even that important? And what can be done to promote social enterprises in Cambodia that don't focus on foreigners, that grow their business targeting Cambodian consumers?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Vote for WaterSHED in a design competition! Once a day every day until April 15

Dear dedicated blog readers,

I am so, so sorry that I have been neglecting my blog a bit. I have a few ideas for upcoming blog posts, and I hope to be more active here in the near future.

As some of you may know, I have been designing a toilet shelter for rural Cambodians. Almost 70% of rural Cambodians don't have access to sanitation--and that means children are suffering from all sorts of terrible diseases, like cholera and typhoid. My organization, WaterSHED, has successfully sold over 100,000 toilets in Cambodia, but the biggest remaining barrier to widespread toilet adoption is the price of a desirable shelter for the toilet. My team has been designing an affordable, flat-pack, easy-assemble attractive shelter for Cambodian consumers, and soon we want to take our design from prototype to production. You can learn more about our product here: Or just watch this short video:

We have entered our design into a competition that, if we win, will provide us with support to set up manufacturing. WaterSHED's extensive sales network will serve as our distribution network--we work with over 170 businesses that reach 40% of Cambodia's population, and we're exploring partnerships with major multinational corporations to expand throughout Asia--and manufacturing is the most major missing component. However, to make it to the finals of this competition, we need to be in the top 10 receivers of votes in an online competition.

Please vote for Emily Gorbaty, Project Name: WaterSHED here:

You can vote once a day every day until April 15, so please continue to vote for WaterSHED every day!

Thank you so much for your support!! My team and I greatly appreciate it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Tech hubs: Silicon Valley vs. Phnom Penh

This is everything that is wrong with Silicon Valley: Alfred won the TechCrunch Disrupt competition. To be fair, I have no idea if the TechCrunch Disrupt competition is or is not important. I hadn't heard of it until the HBO show Silicon Valley made fun of it. But in any case I feel this represents everything that bothers me about the Silicon Valley start-up culture (which can be extended to the Cambridge, MA start-up culture).

Alfred is a butler/maid/personal servant service that organizes all your other service apps (dry cleaning, grocery delivery, house cleaning, etc). I guess the name Alfred is supposed to remind you of Batman's butler. Because you're basically Batman? Apparently it's really great to have your own personal servant whose real name you don't need to know because you just call him your Alfred. Slate much more eloquently discusses why Alfred winning a tech competition is terrible in this article.

And Alfred is not a unique start-up by any means. So many of these start-ups are solving what I like to call "non-problems." They just seem self-serving; their services are targeted at other people of the same privileged socioeconomic status. For example, I once met a woman working on a start-up that would deliver food from restaurants to offices of other start-ups. I'm still not sure why these other start-ups couldn't use one of the existing food delivery services (e.g. GrubHub, Seamless, etc) or--GASP!--call the restaurants themselves. Food delivery to offices is not a real problem. 

What bothers me most is that some of the most brilliant people work at these start-ups. Graduates of Stanford, MIT, Harvard. Do we really want the brightest minds--or at least the most privileged ones--working on non-problems? Shouldn't those of us who were fortunate enough to receive the best education on the planet be working on making this planet a better place?

Last week I attended the Innovations in Development Technology expo in Phnom Penh. I was really inspired by the great work young Cambodian engineers are doing. They are creating apps, much like their software developing brethren in Silicon Valley, but their apps solve real problems--and many of them don't even require a smartphone. Here are just a few examples of interesting projects I learned about:

  • For those of you who don't know, one of Cambodia's primary industries is clothing. That's right, your shirt was probably manufactured down the street from me. You may or may not be aware that over the past year there have been many intense protests by garment workers to raise their wages and improve their situation. A group in Phnom Penh has been working on a two-pronged solution: (1) a smartphone app for factory owners that tells them all the laws regulating the garment industry and the rights of their employees and (2) a missed-call voice system (missed calls are free, and the number will immediately call back the caller--an affordable solution for poor garment workers) that tells garment workers their rights and how to seek help. The garment workers can even make anonymous complaints about their employers, and the system will report the factory owner to the proper authorities.
  • To reduce violence against women, a game to teach men how to properly treat women and why abuse is wrong. (And I think it's fantastic that they are focusing on educating men to tackle the domestic violence problem--that's way too rare.)
  • Logging is a huge problem in Cambodia. Only 1% of Cambodia's forests remain! Much of the logging activity is (often unofficially) government-sanctioned, but some of it is illegal. One organization uses a hidden motion-activated camera that takes pictures of illegal loggers and poachers then immediately sends out a signal with the photo and GPS coordinates to the authorities to catch the criminals and stop the activity. (An animal can of course trigger the camera, but the authorities will check the photo first.) They also use drones to monitor the forest. The remaining forests are in areas belonging to indigenous hill tribes, and the organization that developed this system works closely with the local communities to run this program.
  • Apparently it's a big problem that government ministries only briefly post data before taking it down. In order to improve transparency, Open Development Cambodia grabs the data, maps it using GIS, and makes it publicly available. They also get data from various NGOs and companies. You can see their maps here. In my opinion, their most interesting (and perhaps most useful) map is of economic land concessions.
  • A variety of education tools for both teachers and students at all levels
  • An app to report bribery (much like India's "I Paid a Bribe"). While it's unlikely there will be any punishment for those who demanded bribes, what's interesting is that Bribespot maps each bribe, so at least citizens know where the bribes are happening.
  • Mobile banking to increase access to financial services in places where there might not be a physical bank (and to ease transactions where there are), to more easily transfer money between accounts (e.g. for migrant workers sending money home), and to facilitate microfinance loans
[Also, side note, I ran into a group of 10-year-old Cambodian kids who had 3-D printed their own pencil holder. They are ten years old and know how to CAD!! (I was 24 when I learned how to CAD.) They also had business cards, which was ridiculously adorable. I was very impressed.]

I understand that people want to make money, and making an app to help garment workers in Cambodia may not be a way to do that. Fine. But there are a lot of ideas that can help society and make you rich, too. For instance, Google revolutionized access to information, and those guys got super rich. Also, business at the "Bottom of the Pyramid" is the hottest thing in international development right now. My organization is starting up a for-profit venture to sell water and sanitation products--improving people's health while (hopefully) turning a profit.

There are still plenty of real (and potentially money-making) problems to be solved, in both developing and developed countries. Shouldn't we all be working on solving these real problems?

Tech geeks of Phnom Penh, you win this round. Silicon Valley, time to step up your game.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Expat life: Cambodia vs India

I've been in Cambodia for about four months now. To be honest, while I love my job, I don't love living in Cambodia. I live in an expat bubble, and I find it incredibly frustrating. Expats, quite frankly, do not live in the same Phnom Penh as Cambodians. It's true that I never really intended to move to Cambodia, but I feel like if I'm going to be here, I should at least try to immerse a little bit and make Cambodian friends. But immersion is nearly impossible.

A perfect example: a few weeks ago, Kingdom Brewery was throwing an all-you-can-drink with burgers and fries party, with a $10 cover fee. I went with some of my expat coworkers, and as soon as I entered the brewery I realized that, besides the employees, there wasn't a single Cambodian in the crowd. This is a regular occurrence but it never ceases to upset me.

This is unlikely to happen in Delhi, Mumbai, or Bangalore. I can't imagine walking into a bar in India and not seeing any Indians. Expats tend to mingle in middle- to upper-class Indian circles. Certainly there are bars that expats frequent, but you would always see plenty of Indians too.

From what I've seen, there appear to be several reasons for the differences between the expat experience in Cambodia and in India:

1) There is a significantly higher concentration of expats in Cambodia. Cambodia receives more foreign aid per capita than any other country, and with foreign aid comes foreign NGO employees. I read somewhere that there are about 60,000 expats in Phnom Penh, a city of only 1.5 million people. I don't know how many expats live in Delhi, but Delhi is a city of 20 million. You don't see nearly as many foreign faces on a daily basis.

2) Foreigners who come to India are genuinely interested in India. India is a pretty intense country to live in, and this weeds people out. The foreigners who stay want to be in India. They have decided that it is worth it to put up with challenges of everyday life to experience India. A lot of expats in Cambodia--myself included--sort of just end up here. Many of us have no prior interest in the country, and we're here out of circumstance. These people are less likely to be interested in immersion and befriending Cambodians.

3) There is a larger income difference between expats and locals in Cambodia than in India. I made the same salary as my coworkers in India, but in Cambodia I earn a much higher salary than my coworkers. Expats in Cambodia tend to hold higher positions than their Cambodian colleagues, and quite honestly the NGOs might not be able to attract foreign talent at Cambodian salaries (I'm totally part of this system: I absolutely would not have moved to Cambodia if I had been offered a lower salary). Because foreigners in India want to be in India, and the kind of lifestyle desired by foreigners is much more affordable in India, expats are generally willing to accept lower salaries there (at least in my experience).  As my Indian friends and I earned similar salaries, we could afford the same social activities. However, with the big income gap in Cambodia, I would always think twice before inviting a Cambodian out to dinner--and when I do invite them, they usually turn me down to eat at home, understandably. This income gap is a huge challenge to building a social life with Cambodians. (Admittedly it's on me to be more creative with social activities, but what doesn't cost money? There are no parks in Phnom Penh! I'd be open to any suggestions you have...)

4) Educated Indians are much more comfortable in English than educated Cambodians. India is an incredibly diverse country with hundreds of languages, and thanks to British imperialism, English has become the lingua franca between cultures. If someone from Tamil Nadu wants to chat with someone from West Bengal, they are likely to speak in English. Educated Indians often socialize in English whether or not a foreigner is in their presence. In contrast, Cambodia is much more homogeneous and everyone speaks Khmer. There is no need for a second language to communicate. Additionally, many higher education institutions in India teach their classes in English; in Cambodia, university classes are usually conducted in Khmer. As a result, educated Indians can communicate and socialize much more comfortably with foreigners than Cambodians can (there are of course exceptions, but I find this to be true in general).

Another note about expat life in Cambodia vs. India: expats tend to stay longer in India. With the exception of summer internships, expats tend to stay in India for at least one year. In contrast, at any time of the year in Cambodia you find expats who are here only for a few months. I regularly meet people who I think are interesting, only to learn they are leaving next month. The transience of the expat community here has really demotivated me from making many friends. Why should I invest time and effort into befriending people who are leaving so quickly? I know that's a bad attitude, but I can't help myself. I've been focusing my efforts on the longer-term people instead (I use "longer-term" loosely; I mean more than 6 months), but they're not always so easy to find.

Needless to say, I greatly miss my social life in India (and, obviously, in the States). Hopefully things will get better for me in Cambodia soon.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Watching Uncle Ho watching us

As many of you know, I went to Vietnam two weeks ago for work. This was my second time to Vietnam, as my brother Ben and I visited the country for a few weeks back in 2011. I love Vietnam and highly recommend a visit!

I went to the Mekong Delta region--specifically, Can Tho and Soc Trang--to witness the launch of my organization's handwashing product, called the HappyTap, in partnership with the Vietnam Women's Union (let's be honest, without any Vietnamese language skills I wasn't doing much more than simply witnessing). The Women's Union has branches in every village in Vietnam, so partnering with them is a huge opportunity to raise awareness about the need for handwashing and create demand for our product in every corner of the country. It's a bit unclear to me if the Women's Union is a government institution or a wing of the Communist party or if the government and the party are one and the same, but I'm pretty sure that's how the Women's Union has access to every village.

I traveled from Phnom Penh to Can Tho, and then back to Phnom Penh from Saigon. I took buses between Vietnam and Cambodia (the distance from Phnom Penh to Can Tho is approximately the same as Washington DC to New York and to Saigon approximately the same as Philadelphia to Boston). The difference in the landscape at the border was striking. As soon as I crossed into Vietnam, the potholes in the road disappeared and I found myself surrounded by bright green rice paddies and lush banana plantations. The Mekong Delta is the most productive rice region in Vietnam, and because rice is one of Vietnam's most important exports, the government has invested a lot of money to ensure that area is irrigated and can produce rice year-round. In contrast, Cambodian farmers cannot afford to irrigate their fields and only grow rice during the rainy season, so the countryside was pretty brown. (Sound familiar?) It was incredible to me that Vietnam's economic edge over Cambodia was immediately apparent.

(To be fair, I crossed back into Cambodia at a different checkpoint, and there was pretty much no difference other than language and a bunch of casinos on the Cambodian side. [I guess gambling is illegal in Vietnam so people cross the border to play? not sure.] But that checkpoint was not in the Delta.)

A funny note about my Vietnamese coworkers (who are probably sick of foreigners thinking this is funny): they are named Ai and Quy, pronounced "I" and "We." And Ai's sister is named My, pronounced "Me." I love it. In the Phnom Penh office we have to refer to Ai as "Miss Ai" otherwise it gets too confusing and everyone thinks you are talking about yourself. Ai and Quy are wonderful people and the best part of my too-short trip to Vietnam was hanging out with them. Ai grew up in Can Tho, and she and My (who is still in high school and thus lives in Can Tho with Ai's parents) showed Quy and me around the town.

Quy and Ai eat soft tofu in jasmine water.
The rest of my Vietnamese coworkers were field staff and spoke pretty much no English, with one exception. That one exception told me that most of his family lives in San Jose, California. His father was on the wrong side of the war; he had worked as an officer of some sort in the US-backed South Vietnam government. At some point after the war, his father was sent to a Communist reeducation camp and upon his release sought asylum in the US. Since my coworker was over 18 years old at that point (he is now about 40), whether to go or stay was his decision. He chose to stay in Vietnam since he was already studying at university and wasn't confident that his English was good enough to succeed in an American college. He was the only one to stay. His younger siblings and mother joined his father in the US. My coworker hopes to one day move to California to reunite with his family and provide his children with an American university education.

I often feel like I'm running into American history that wasn't quite taught in my high school history class. And not only in Vietnam. I went to Laos during my Khmer New Year vacation in April. The US dropped more than 270 million bombs on Laos during the "secret" carpet-bombing campaign from 1964 to 1973--that's more than all bombs dropped everywhere by everyone during WWII. Laos still suffers from this everyday, as people inadvertently step on unexploded ordnance. Walking through Luang Prabang's night market, I came across several stalls of vendors selling utensils and bangles made from melted-down bombs (I bought chopsticks; the proceeds fund demining efforts and support the metal artisans). Much of the advertised tourism in northeast Laos involves trekking to "bomb villages" (I didn't go). I met several Laotian people, usually belonging to the Hmong tribe, whose relatives had fled to the US (mostly Minnesota) after the war. The CIA had financed and trained Hmong tribespeople to fight an insurgency against the Communist Party in Laos. The Hmong lost and the US granted asylum.

During the war the US rained bombs on Cambodia as well, in an attempt to oust the North Vietnamese from the bases they had established on the Cambodian side of the border. After the coup of Prince Sihanouk created the Khmer Republic and triggered the Cambodian Civil War, the US provided air support to the Khmer Republic to fight the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge insurgency.  To be honest, the American legacy is not nearly as apparent in Cambodia as it is in Laos and Vietnam (at least not to me), since the Khmer Rouge genocide following American withdrawal overshadows pretty much everything else. There might still be unexploded ordnance from the American cluster bombs, like there is in Laos, but I'm under the impression most landmines were planted by the Khmer Rouge.

Despite the brutal history of American involvement in Indochina, it seems that people don't really feel any animosity towards Americans. As Ai and Quy explained, these days Vietnamese people actually like Americans. Americans are open and friendly, and interaction with us is an opportunity to improve English language skills, which are necessary in today's globalized society. Their beef is only with the American government. People in Laos and Cambodia have told me the same thing.

While I appreciate the differentiation between people and the government, it's not totally legitimate, since in a democracy supposedly the people are choosing their government. Should American citizens not be held accountable for the actions of the American government? As an American, should I not feel some sense of responsibility and guilt for what transpired in Indochina? Does the fact that the US government actually withheld information about the carpet bombing from the public (and of course the fact that I wasn't born yet) relieve any of this responsibility? And what does it mean to be an American living in this region today, a few decades after the war?

When I mentioned to Ai and Quy that I really need to read up on the history of Indochina, especially American involvement here, Ai told me that she hated history in school. She said that schools feed children the Communist party's version of Vietnam's history and students are not allowed to question it. Even at university students could not engage in discussions and debate about various perspectives on history. Of course, in the US children are also taught certain mythologies about our history, but I do think in higher education debate is encouraged.

I found all the Communist propaganda in Vietnam amusing. I know it's not funny, but I couldn't help but laugh at it (I realize this reveals how very American I am). A bust of Ho Chi Minh, accompanied by a gold star, a hammer and sickle, and banners with Communist party slogans in Vietnamese, watched over every meeting and event we held (and in one location Marx and Lenin watched us, too). I found it a bit unsettling that "Uncle Ho" was always watching. Quy joked that, in fact, we were watching Uncle Ho watching us (especially because I kept taking photos of Uncle Ho). To me, it was particularly weird to be holding sales events--decidedly capitalist endeavors--in spaces decked-out with Communist imagery.

 A sales event, with Uncle Ho, Uncle Karl, and Uncle Vlad watching from the stage (Ho Chi Minh is the bust to the left, and Marx and Lenin are in the oval picture to the right).
Uncle Ho is a very powerful man. Physically, too. That must be why he's in a government ad to promote exercise.

It was a bit difficult to tell what my coworkers thought about all this in-your-face propaganda, but my impression is that people mostly shrug it off. It's just a part of life in Vietnam. They don't think about it any more than I might think about a US Army recruitment commercial. People seem satisfied enough with the country's economic development, and the government isn't nearly as repressive as the Chinese model of Communism. (Facebook is blocked in the country, but one of my coworkers joked that the government was helping people develop their computer skills, as everyone figures out how to circumvent the restrictions.)

Communist propaganda aside, the sales events were fascinating. We held two events, one led by my organization, and the other led by the Women's Union. The idea was to learn from each other's strategies to inform a stronger sales pitch for the future. Our presentation emphasized the negative health implications of handwashing negligence, and the Women's Union's presentation mentioned heath briefly before launching into a demonstration of how to properly wash hands using items commonly found in a rural Vietnamese home. Interestingly, their demo required two people to wash one person's hand--someone else was needed to pour the water. The convenience of our product, basically a standalone sink with an attached water tank, stood in stark contrast. Women had reacted somewhat lukewarmly to the previous day's health presentation, but they loved actually seeing the convenience of our product. Many more women were interested in the product after the second presentation (we did the presentations with different groups of women).

The Women's Union demonstrates proper handwashing technique using objects already found in the home. Using a bucket and pitcher require the help of a second person.

Our product, in comparison, does not require a second person to help and it saves water. Plus it's adorable.
It was interesting, though not surprising, that illustrating convenience makes the product more appealing than focusing on health benefits. After all, who likes to get lectured at about how they're doing everything wrong for their families' health? And it's not just handwashing. Traditional cookstoves emit pollutants that give their families respiratory diseases. Open defecation poisons their water and food and gives their children diarrhea. Not boiling or filtering their water will inflict typhoid and more diarrhea on their children. Everything women do in rural Asia seems to be bad for their health, right? While of course knowledge of health impacts is vital, during a sales pitch it makes sense to put greater focus on something else for a change. As my coworker Lindsay, our resident behavior change expert, can tell you, knowledge of healthy practices doesn't necessarily drive change. For example, everybody knows smoking is bad for you, yet millions do it anyway.

People all over the world love convenience; it's human nature to do what is easy and fast and avoid what is difficult and slow. If I did not have access to plumbing and water flowing right out of my tap, I probably wouldn't wash my hands a lot either. This lesson is not new to our organization. In fact, our product's Vietnamese name translates to "Convenience." I think it would be wise for us to integrate the Women's Union's traditional handwashing demonstration into our presentations before introducing our product. It would also be great to have the women actually try out washing their hands with both the household tools and our product. Seeing and experiencing the difference between the two handwashing methods would have a powerful impact and, hopefully, boost our sales.

After our work was done, Ai, Quy, My, and My's boyfriend Giang (...not pronounced like an English pronoun) and I visited the floating market of Cai Rang. Ben and I had visited this same market almost three years ago, and it was interesting to see how the market had changed in a fairly short time period. The market was noticeably smaller. There were fewer boats and less activity.

Ai explained that the Vietnamese government had been taking measures to move floating markets to land. Traditionally, living and working on a boat in the Delta made sense. There are hundreds if not thousands of canals and boats were the fastest way to get around. These days, though, there are roads (and trust me, those roads are beautiful, especially compared to Cambodia's roads), so there is little need to depend on rivers for transport.

The floating market communities face many difficult problems, and the government believes moving onshore can improve their quality of life. They bathe, do laundry, wash dishes, drink, poop, and pee in the same water. The mobility of a boat means they do not have an address or residence. With no address, they are denied many social services. Their children, until recently, were not allowed to attend school without a permanent residence (though they are now admitted into schools, the families might still travel the canals between villages so that their children are not in the same place everyday and cannot attend school). Teen pregnancy is also a huge issue, as people live in very close quarters and do not have access to sex education. If moving these communities off the water really would have an impact on improving their health and wealth, I can see why the government has been pushing the move. However, they'll have to do a lot more than simply beach the market to tackle water, sanitation, education, and teen pregnancy. Even landlubber communities face these challenges!

Children of floating market families who do get an education often look beyond the river for economic opportunity. Those who go to college want to become office-bound professionals rather than boat-bound produce wholesalers. They want to provide a more comfortable, healthier life for their own children. The floating market communities are shrinking even without government prodding.

All this being said, people continue to live and work on these boats today, even with the roads. So some people do care about preserving the floating market way of life (either that, or they see no other options). The floating market is just one of many worldwide examples of a traditional lifestyle struggling to survive and thrive against the mighty wave of modernization. But culture is dynamic--today's particular snapshot of their culture is not the same as a snapshot of their culture from three hundred years ago--and ultimately improved health and education are good things.

Boats in the Cai Rang floating market
Pumpkin wholesaler in the Cai Rang floating market. The giant eyes were traditionally painted on the boats to scare away crocodiles, but these days there aren't many crocodiles left in the Mekong Delta.
We took a selfie on the boat. Front to back: Giang, My, me, Ai, Quy.
Finally, I end this absurdly long post with a shout-out to my brother. Ben, I saluted Can Tho's giant Ho Chi Minh statue again for you:

June 2011
April 2014

Ai and Quy, if you guys are reading this, I apologize if anything I said about Vietnam was mistaken. Please correct me if I'm wrong and I'll fix it!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

I love my new job.

I've been a real slacker on this blog, and for that I apologize. In fact, I apologize for my last post complaining about apartment hunting. I'm embarrassed that I sound like an American brat, but it seems to be tradition on this blog to bitch about apartment hunting when I move to a new city.

I ended up finding a great place with a wonderful landlady. She often welcomes me home at the end of the day with a snack and, most recently, a whole bag of mangoes. While she doesn't speak a word of English, her children (who are about my age) speak English fluently and have even studied and/or worked abroad in the US and Japan. One of them studied in Boston on a Fulbright! We sometimes hang out on the ground floor of the building. They are wonderful people.

So, what am I doing in Cambodia? I work for an NGO transitioning into a for-profit enterprise (or are they just starting a for-profit wing? I'm a bit unclear on that). My organization approaches water and sanitation challenges with market-based solutions. Basically, we sell toilets, water filters, and handwashing devices to rural consumers. (People tend not to value--and thus not to use or repair--a product they receive for free.*) Therefore, a lot of our work involves creating demand for water and sanitation products; we are actually among the leaders worldwide in what is called "sanitation marketing."

*I recognize this statement is an oversimplification and not always true but I don't feel like getting into all that right now.

The products we sell were designed in collaboration with a famous design firm in San Francisco, but now my organization wants to build an in-house design team rather than rely on external consultants. I was hired to build and lead this team. I'm in the middle of recruiting Cambodian engineers, and it's really weird to be on the other side of hiring so soon after going through the job hunting process.

I will be working on a number of products. Our flagship product in Cambodia is a simple pour-flush pit latrine, since approximately 80% of rural Cambodians do not have access to toilets and must practice open defecation. We've already sold over 70,000 latrines nationwide. However, the primary obstacle to widespread toilet adoption is the high price of the latrine shelter that is attractive to consumers (cheaper shelters are available but people don't want them and prefer to have no toilet than a toilet with the cheaper shelter). My first challenge is to come up with an affordable latrine shelter that meets the consumers' needs and desires. In the future I will be working on "infant and young child feces management" products (a.k.a. potties), a larger version of our handwashing device for schools, health clinics, refugee camps, etc (our current device is household-size), and a household rainwater harvesting kit.

I love my job. I get both the engineering and the social science, the physics and the field work. I have already been traveling a lot. I've been out in "the provinces" three times (people say "the provinces" when they mean anywhere but Phnom Penh; usually it refers to rural areas) and to Vietnam--and it's been only 5 weeks. I will be working closely with manufacturers, which is the biggest hole in my experience, so hopefully I will learn a ton and gain new useful skills. And my coworkers are lovely. I mean, how could I not love a job where my boss pretends to poop?

This is my boss.

My life is a little boring outside of work, because I don't have any non-work friends yet. To be honest though, I'm really enjoying the alone time right now, burying myself in books about Indochina and watching my favorite TV shows. But I think soon I might go a little stir-crazy, so I should probably start trying to meet people. I learned about a Hindi/Urdu conversation group recently, so I might join to meet other people interested in India (I would be lying if I said I didn't miss India every day) and of course to brush up on my Hindi.

Speaking of languages, I have started Khmer lessons. In some ways the language is difficult--the pronunciation is pretty much impossible for my American tongue--but in other ways it's not so difficult. For example, there appear to be no tenses or verb conjugation. So vocabulary is hard but grammar is easy. My tutor is fantastic and classes are pretty fun.

And now for some photos:

The edge of a market in Kampong Cham province

The infamous fried spiders. Cambodians started to eat spiders and other bugs to fend off starvation during the Khmer Rouge when there was no other food available. I'm not sure why people still eat them. Apparently the legs are the tastiest part.

Adorable family in a village in Kampong Cham province.

Another adorable family in Kampong Cham province.

This guy climbed a tree to pick some coconuts for us to drink.

Volleyball is the most popular sport in Cambodia. This surprised me, since I didn't realize volleyball was popular anywhere.

A typical village home in Cambodia sits on stilts.
A typical poor family's home is made of palm leaves rather than wood.
Rural households typically store their water in giant jugs like these.

In rural Cambodia, iced coffee comes in bags. Lindsay (pictured) and I love Cambodian iced coffee. 

This is where village women give birth--if they come to the clinic at all. It was even more terrifying in person.

Napping in a hammock is a favorite pastime in the hot season.

Children play on a mountain of scraps from the nearby garment factories in Kampong Speu province.

Mai, Lindsay, and me with our host family in a village in Kampong Speu province

In Vietnam we held meetings under the watchful eye of Uncle Ho. (That's Ho Chi Minh, in case that's not clear.)

More posts coming soon. I have so much to catch you up on!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Finally got a job Cambodia!

Unemployment has come to an end. I got a job! In Phnom Penh! I'll be designing water and sanitation products with communities in rural Cambodia and I'm super excited about it. I move on Friday!

It's crazy to me that I'm moving to a totally new country (that is, a country that is not India). I've been in and out of India for almost seven years now. In my work and research I have only ever thought about India. I studied Hindi for a while. I minored in South Asian Studies as an undergrad. I have lots of friends in India. I have an entire Indian wardrobe of salwar kameezes and saris. I know the train system like the back of my hand. Every time I land in Delhi, I feel like I'm coming home. I felt committed to India for so long--in some ways, I still feel very committed to India--and it feels weird to be going somewhere else.

I'm afraid I'll project India onto Cambodia. When I went to Oaxaca, Mexico, I was called out on comparing everything to India. "Not every developing country is the same," I was reminded again and again. (To be fair, though, Oaxaca has Bajaj autorickshaws!! They call them mototaxis. But the point is well taken.) It's difficult to push aside expectations and assumptions that I have developed over several years. I will have to try hard not to view Cambodia through the lens of my experience in India; otherwise, my work in Cambodia would suffer.

Hopefully I'll continue to stay connected to India. Certainly I'll keep following Indian politics. After all, this is the most controversial/exciting/terrifying election in years. I'd love to squeeze in a visit to the Subcontinent during my time in Cambodia, so friends in India, stay tuned!

And to anyone in Cambodia who comes across my blog: do you know a good Khmer teacher? It's time for me to commit to Cambodia, too.