The social enterprise Kumae – located in Trapaing Thom commune’s Phnom Dey village of Siem Reap province’s Prasat Bakong district – was founded by Japanese expat Takuya Yamase in order to provide employment to local women processing banana fibre into paper, greeting cards, bags and coasters.

Their products were very popular among tourists, but ever since the Covid-19 crisis arrived, the business has not been doing very well and much of their workforce has gradually moved on to other employment.

Kumae is a phonetic Japanese transliteration of “Khmer” written in English, said Sour Rathakanha, the business manager and Yamase’s wife.

Yamase gave an interview to The Post along with his wife about why he initially came to Cambodia and why he later decided to move to the Kingdom.

“I first came to Cambodia in 2012 as a volunteer with a Japanese group that went to various village schools in Siem Reap province to donate some materials and clothes, and we also were invited to go and see the rubbish landfill, though we weren’t sure why at first.

“I went to see the landfill and I was shocked because I hadn’t imagined that so many people would be working there digging through piles of rubbish. When I returned to my home country, I tried to think of ways to do some good by helping the people there. So in 2014, I decided to move to Cambodia because I thought I might be able to do something to change things or help some of the workers at the landfill,” he said.

Yamase added that he didn’t have any clear goals or purpose in Japan and that his life there was too much of the same thing from day to day, living in a very densely populated urban area where there was never any peace and quiet or any solitude.

He said that when he moved to Cambodia in early 2014, he didn’t plan on creating a business at first, but instead began to teach free Japanese classes to children in a village near the landfill and eventually one of his students was even able to become a Japanese-language tour guide.

While he was teaching Japanese, he was also learning Khmer from the villagers and once he was able to communicate well enough, he began to ask about life at the landfill.

“I asked them why they wanted to work in such an unpleasant place that smelled terrible, and they said it was because they didn’t have any other work to do and it was near their homes, so they could go there at any time.

“I started looking for something else for them to do and I found some YouTube videos that explained how to make bags or bracelets and I tried making things like jewellery from plant materials, but the business didn’t take off until the end of 2015, when I started making paper from banana plants,” he said.

He noted that he got the idea of making paper from banana fibre from a Japanese project in Africa, but there were many changes that had to be made with the equipment and processes to make them work with the banana plants that grow in Cambodia.

Yamase said it was more difficult to process the species of banana plants found in Cambodia and it was more time-consuming so he wasn’t sure that his idea would work, but in 2015 they found an efficient way to turn the plants into paper.

Currently, Yamase makes two kinds of paper: one purely made from banana fibre, and another mixed with plastic resins.

Back in 2015, Yamase opened up a shop at the Siem Reap Night Market and the business was doing well selling primarily to tourists until the pandemic began.

“Since starting my business, I have created jobs to help more than 20 villagers. But now because we can’t pay a high salary any longer due to the Covid-19 crisis, some of them decided to go back to working at the landfill. Currently, we have only about 10 people,” he said.

Bags made from banana fibres by Kumae in Siem Reap. KUMAE

Tith Samneang, 35, who previously worked at a rubbish landfill, has been a member of the Kumae Association since 2018. Samneang recalled that she heard about the association through other villagers and asked to work there when they were recruiting staff.

“This work has helped me a lot. I have had the opportunity to be with my children while they study and I don’t have to travel far. This is a safe place to work that won’t harm our health. And I’ve learned new skills like sewing bags and making paper,” she said.

Samneang briefly described the process of making paper and other products from banana plants.

“First of all, we need to chop up the banana plants bought from surrounding villagers and then we take only the banana trunk’s outer layer and boil it until it’s soft. It is then washed thoroughly. After that, we step on it until it is even softer and then it is washed again and cut it into small pieces,” she said.

She said the most difficult aspect of the work is cutting down the banana plants because they are heavy and difficult to carry, but stepping on the plants to soften them up can be very tiring as well.

“After it is softened, we can make it into various kinds of materials. We dry it according to the type of material being made, such as sewing paper, various women’s purses, playing cards, coasters, envelopes and more,” she said.

Samneang noted that due to the current economic situation and the lack of sales, they only worked in the mornings making banana fibre. Normally they would work in the afternoons as well making products from it, but now they hold off doing so until there is an order for them or they need inventory for the shop.

Yamase’s wife Rathakanha said the work they were doing encouraged her to be creative and to find ways to solve problems and challenges when they came along.

Rathakanha also talked about the challenges related to marketing their products to local customers because once they’d heard that the paper was made from banana plants, they assumed that it must be cheap, but it wasn’t low-cost because of the amount of labour required for the processing of the plants.

“The trade-off that many people don’t immediately understand the value of is that the products are environmentally friendly and sustainable,” she said.

The Kumae Association’s typical customers have mostly been tourists or from environmentally friendly companies or certain businesses that cater to western tourists such as hotels seeking to market themselves as environmentally sound and socially responsible businesses.

However, with tourism a mere shadow of what it was prior to the pandemic and no certain relief from the economic disruption being caused by the lack of international visitors, Yamase remains worried about his future business prospects, especially in hard-hit Siem Reap.

“I find it difficult to talk about how I feel because I feel like a failure right now. My main goal was to help at least 100 people at the landfill, but right now we can barely keep ourselves afloat. I don’t know what the future will bring but we’re going to try and innovate to find some way to succeed and in doing so help the local people here,” he said.

Sun Kong, Siem Reap’s provincial environment department director, expressed his gratitude to Yamase for coming to Cambodia and helping to create jobs for women in the province by making banana plant products.

He said there is a lot of potential for new ideas about turning sustainable raw materials into everyday items that can replace harmful products like plastic bags, noting that he was previously unaware of the financial difficulties Yamase had encountered.

“This is a good activity that contributes to the work of the Ministry of Environment. I would like to support and encourage the women working in the community and our friends from Japan. I appreciate [Yamase’s] work contributing to the promotion of the use of raw materials like banana plants and the economic help being given to the people in the targeted villages,” he said.

Kong said that although he has not yet visited the Kumae Association in person, he will send officials to discuss with Yamase about how the environment department and the ministry could support any part of his operations or improve his production chain.

“The ministry has shared on its web page information related to the Kumae Association in the past to help promote and raise awareness of their work, and my department will pay a visit to his production site to talk about further cooperation and help motivate them to continue their work,” he said.