Hannes Schmid, a professional photographer and artist from Switzerland, met a Cambodian girl who had been forced to beg for money on the streets of Thailand back when he visited there in 2012.
She had previously been the victim of an acid attack and then later ended up in Thailand when she was exploited by human traffickers.
Schmid rescued the girl and returned her to Cambodia, which was Schmid’s first introduction to the Kingdom.
Today, Schmid is a board member of the NGO he founded, Smiling Gecko Switzerland, which acts as an international coordinator of donations and funding for Smiling Gecko Cambodia (SGC).
SGC executive director Ngon Sokleap tells The Post: “Through helping this girl by bringing her back home, Schmid got to know Cambodia. He could see that the people residing in slums or who were homeless or migrants were all facing difficulties.”
A few years later, SGC was registered in the Kingdom as an NGO working towards improving the standard of living in Cambodia by securing sufficient funds for long term projects devoted to providing better education via organic agricultural projects and various other initiatives.
Located in Kampong Chhnang’s southernmost Samaki Meanchey district, SGC is an NGO with projects ranging from agriculture to hospitality and education.
“Recently we’ve been using about half of the 130ha plot [we hold here]. In agriculture, we’ve rolled out the organisation’s industrial poultry farm, a pig farm and a fish farm, along with the Agriculture Family Project [AFP] on about 30ha of land,” says Sokleap.
Starting in 2015, AFP sponsored the relocation of 12 families from the slums of Phnom Penh to SGC’s land in Kampong Chhnang where each family was given a 5,000sqm plot of farm land to use to provide a living for them.
SGC also built a guest house to accommodate visitors, guests and students along with a kitchen to serve food made from their farm’s produce and livestock.
The Farmhouse Smiling Gecko guesthouse and restaurant act as a visitor centre where people can gain insight into the organisation’s innovative and holistic social projects.
Sitting on a rattan chair in front of Farmhouse Smiling Gecko restaurant, Sokleap says: “We’ve built a bungalow resort on 2.5ha here. We have 17 Khmer style wooden houses which are divided into 34 rooms.”
Sokleap says SGC is now heavily focused on their Village School Project. It was also introduced in 2015, working in close collaboration with ETH Zurich and Zurich University of Teacher Education.
SGC has a two-pronged strategy regarding education, with Zurich University of Teacher Education focused on improving what occurs inside the classrooms and ETH Zurich focused on building schools and infrastructure so that modern classrooms and facilities will be available in the first place.
“We have a village school where today we have about 300 students,” says Sokleap, “We are about to establish an education centre for around 1100 students that will serve as a model for [reforming] the school system in Cambodia.”
Humble beginnings on the farm
Shocked into action by the level of poverty that he encountered in Phnom Penh, Schmid started providing food packages with rice and other groceries for some families here and he began to split his time between Switzerland and Cambodia.
Schmid realised that his efforts would never be consistent or sustained enough to tackle the problem of poverty or hunger in Cambodia if they were reliant solely on donations out of his own pocket or from his friends and whenever he visited the slum areas he always found more and more children and families that needed help.
He knew he couldn’t help all of them by himself so he came up with a plan that he thought would at least help some of them in a lasting way.
“Schmid chose 10 families to earn their living by farming crops, fishing and raising livestock. He always watched over those families,” says Sokleap.
Those early farming efforts failed when the poultry died and the vegetables spoiled due to a lack of expertise with agriculture.
Schmid then decided to register as a non-government organisation and seek local partners to work with to make his efforts more effective.
Sokleap, 32, tells The Post “I was introduced to [Schmid] in December 2013 a few years after I had graduated from The Royal University of Law and Economics [RULE] and The Institute of Foreign Languages [IFL] in 2010.
“We talked about our lives and individual experiences and he told me not to pursue my scholarship in Australia and insisted that I run his charity organisation with him.”
Though SGC is connected to Smiling Gecko Switzerland (SGS), the two organisations operate independently from each other with SGC managed by Cambodian staff and SGS working mostly as a donor coordinator back in Switzerland.
“We founded SGC in 2015 [with just the two of us] and today we have 260 employees,” says Sokleap.
Smiling Gecko a ‘symbol of hope’
The smiling gecko and gecko’s feet symbols and logo are meant to inspire those who face difficulties related to societal ills such as human trafficking.
Sokleap says that the gecko is a small reptile that escapes predators by shedding its tail and being able to survive the loss of other body parts such as limbs which it is then able to fully regenerate.
“It is meant to show people who are struggling through adversity that they can pursue their dreams. And though they may fail many times before succeeding, they can survive that and keep going,” Sokleap says.
Twelve families living in the slums or garbage dumps each received 0.5ha of land to use as a home and a farm to grow crops and raise animals.
“Around 7ha were given to those first families and today the organisation has expanded to 130ha to use for projects in agriculture, hospitality, producing crafts and also the village school.
“We can’t buy more land for newcomers [at present] but we are extending the agricultural project to sites located away from our main campus. We are currently seeking poor families to join our project,” says Sokleap.
SGC rolled out the Agriculture Community Project (ACP) to support micro-farming that combines growing vegetables with raising livestock. Poor families gain additional income while their [vulnerability due to] dependency on a single crop is reduced.
“The families are provided necessary infrastructure – pigsties, chicken coops and fish ponds – based on their personal needs and the requirements of their farm businesses,” says Sokleap.
Overcoming the odds
SGC chose organic agriculture – which doesn’t make use of chemicals such as pesticides – to develop the community and support their core education projects.
They soon discovered that growing crops in the infertile and sandy soil [on their land in Kampong Chhnang] is not easy to do.
Sokleap says: “We chose this location due to a lack of any experience with agriculture at all. Mr Schmid and I are not expert farmers, unfortunately.
“One of our employees, a tuk-tuk driver, brought Schmid to visit the village he was from and so we ended up here [in Samaki Meanchey district].
“It will take some time to improve the soil quality. Since we use organic processes, it will one day yield a better harvest than chemically tainted soil.”
He says another issue they have is that in the rainy season the soils are waterlogged but in the dry season they get drought conditions and their water usage is much higher, but so far they’ve gotten what they needed.
“We are in a bit of a remote area so we have more support from the local authorities. They have been very warm and welcoming and have helped to boost our projects,” says Sokleap.
SGC collects donations from all over the world but their main sources of funding are organisations in Switzerland and Germany.
They have also gotten assistance from universities and institutes to supply technical knowledge and advice on subjects like farming that SGC initially lacked.
“We have our local management team who are trained by international coaches. They are experts from abroad serving as volunteer coaches in Cambodia for brief periods,” he says.
Support for village school
After obtaining some funding through international charitable donations, SGC initially spent its capital on investments in hospitality projects such as the guesthouse/restaurant and the purchase of land for their farming projects.
Those projects in turn are supposed to help provide support for the Village School Project.
“For the upcoming school year we increased our capacity so that we now teach students from kindergarten or pre-school through Grade 4. We are encouraging parents in the community to register their children for pre-school at ages as young as 3 years old,” says Sokleap.
Sokleap explained that SGC has a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport permitting the school project and they are preparing to register as an international private school making use of both English-language and Khmer-language curriculums.
“We would like our village school programme to one day extend all the way up through university degrees. This is our main project in the community since we believe high quality education is the only thing that will provide a permanent solution to end poverty in Cambodia.
“All of our projects create jobs and provide job training skills but the school can help students pursue any career or achieve any goal imaginable. So our other projects help people in different ways but they are all intended to support the Village School,” he says.
However, SGC doesn’t have the funding yet to provide 100 per cent free education so parents pay a small amount in tuition fees in order to help keep the school going.
He says that the children in the [Tbeng Khpos commune] community have been given a huge opportunity through the Village School programme; especially the fact that they are studying English there now from a young age.
SGC has big plans for their school programme and hopes to expand it by one grade per year going forward.
“There are lots of different ways we help people but in the end education is the most enduring assistance we can provide,” he concludes.
SGC is located in the Tbeng Khpos commune, in the centre of Kampong Chhnang province’s Samaki Meanchey district, about 70km from Phnom Penh.
Visit Facebook page @smilinggeckocamobodiaor website https://www.smilinggecko.ch/en/ for more details.