Coconuts are prized for their milk and their delicious meat, but their husks and shells most often end up as fuel for cooking fires. A group of students from Hun Sen Cham Yeam High School have changed all that, with their award winning range of lanterns, pencil holders, vases and tissue boxes.

Doeun Sreyvit can still hear the applause from when she, along with her team of four, claimed victory at the Entrepreneur Competition Day in the Materials from Skills topic at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) on September 21. Ten teams participated in the contest, but it was her team that brought pride to their school. They also claimed gold medals, certificates of appreciation and 600,000 riel in prize money.

She told The Post that she studies in the 10th grade at the high school, located in Cham Yeam Village, Bak Khlang Commune, Mondul Seima District, Koh Kong Province. She is the leader of the team which hand produced souvenirs and other materials from coconut shells.

Sreyvit said that her team first came up with idea for using coconut shells after pondering over what materials were widely available, but appeared to have no purpose. More specifically, they wondered what kind of plant waste could be turned into consumer goods.

She added that it was pure coincidence that they were thinking about this when the school announced the competition.

They decided on coconut shells after realising how many were available in their village and commune. After settling on the idea, they began approaching coconut vendors for their old shells and picked up coconuts from the beaches and villages around their homes.

After they gathered the shells, they had to decide on how they add value to them. They began with lanterns.

“We had the full encouragement of our families and of our principal. Initially, we made vases and lanterns to hang outside of our houses. Then we had the idea that rather than produce hanging lanterns, we could make ones that could sit on a table – as an attractive centerpiece to a nice meal, for example,” said Sreyvit.

After some trial and error, it was decided that a stand was required to ensure the lanterns shape was kept at its most attractive. Then team experimented with bamboo until they had a design they were happy with. The use of all natural materials was an important part of their beauty, she added.

They selected only the most perfect round coconuts to produce the lanterns, with some being found on the beach and some collected from the market.

Finally, in September, the team and their products were brought to RUPP for the competition, where they were announced as the victors. In addition to the competition prizes, Mithona Phuthong, governor of Koh Kong Province, offered her support and encouragement – and an incentive of $800 to the team.

The beautiful items they made were displayed over the Water Festival in Koh Kong, where they were admired by many guests to the province.

“Most of our products were sold to our aunts and uncles, who like natural creations. Moreover, they know that if they support these items, they are helping to reduce environmental waste as well. Through our ideas, we wanted to contribute to reducing environmental waste and inspire society to be more interested in natural materials. Some people think that coconut shells are just useless waste products, and we wanted to prove them wrong,” she said.

In addition to selling their coconut shell products at exhibitions, her team has created an online marketplace called Modern Coconut Shell, which receives a large number of orders. They plan to train other students at their high school to follow in their footsteps.

Oum Savon, principal of Hun Sen Cham Yeam High School, told The Post that students began making their products earlier this year. Their first job was to pick coconuts from the beach, in the villages and at the markets. Sometimes the coconut vendors would even give them the shells for free, he said.

Their initial products did not attract much attention from customers, but once they had perfected their designs they received more and more support, even drawing admiration from the provincial governor, he added.

“In terms of the environment, they have contributed to reducing scattered waste. We usually throw away coconuts after we eat them, but these students came up with creative ideas to add value to what would otherwise be waste. Their intelligence and innovation shows that they are setting an excellent example for their peers, and for the children who come after them,” he said.