When people started dumping rubbish around Kourn Chenda’s and Try Sokchen’s home in Prey Veng province, the couple ignored it at first.
They lived behind a hot pot restaurant and there wasn’t a simple solution to rid their place of other peoples’ litter.
But when the rubbish heaps started to smell, the couple decided they had to do something. Much of the problem was due to discarded cow and buffalo horns, which produced a foul odour and attracted hungry swarms of insects.
Chenda says: “We didn’t know what we could do with them [the horns] but because the odour started to worsen, we tried to collect, wash and dry them. At that time, all we could think of is stopping the stench.”
In 1998, Prasac, the microfinance institution which started as a development project funded by the EU, offered the couple instruction on how to turn the horns into useful items like furniture.
Sokchen loved the furniture made from horns so much that he became a teacher at Prasac to pass the skills onto others.
Chenda says she and her husband never imagined their newfound hobby could become a sustainable business. But after years of working for other people, they decided to strike out on their own.
“We chose to work as construction workers in different provinces and even in Thailand. After a while, we grew exhausted from working for others, Chenda says.
Eventually, my husband gathered the courage to make a living with his creativity, even though he knew many might not value it. In 2003, we started a small business by making a few things and asking people to help sell them for us since we didn’t own a shop yet.”
The 38-year-old told The Post that she and her husband started with six to seven workers but when business didn’t pick up, their staff was reduced to three.
From kiosks to a mall storefront
In 2017, Chenda set up a kiosk and started selling the horn-fashioned goods at Wat Phnom, but she found the area to be too quiet and she wasn’t able to make enough sales.
About a year later, she found a perfect place for her shop on the fourth floor of the Sorya Centre Point mall in Phnom Penh.
“It’s been 17 years till now, and that is a long journey for us. Many times, I asked my husband why he continued doing what he’s been doing. Couldn’t he see that it wasn’t going to work out?
“He told me he did it because he loves it. He wants to keep this [horn merchandise] as a legacy for his younger generation to see. Hearing his heart, I decided to walk with him,” she says.
Chenda does the marketing for the company while her husband focuses on fashioning the horns.
Their extensive experience in the business has allowed them to push their boundaries. And after assessing the market, Chenda discussed coming up with alternative designs to keep up with customers’ demands.
“We learned to combine the horns with other materials such as copper, silver and wood to come up with different designs because you can’t make much with solely the horns,” she says.
Aside from furniture, their shop, called Somonea, sells daily necessities, Khmer instruments, jewellery, lanterns, tobacco pipes, combs, back scratchers, and hairpins, among other items.
The crafting process
It takes years to master the skill of crafting the horns and several days to finish a single piece.
Chenda says the most difficult part of the process is cleaning the horn.
“In cleaning the horn, we need to put in a lot of effort, washing it inside and out with sandpaper and using a polishing machine at the end. If a horn still has some meat attached to it, we need to boil it. If we don’t clean it well, the odour will never go away.
“We do it over and over until we can feel the smooth texture. Then we take it to dry to stop the stench. Finally, in the shade, we choose horns with certain figures because not every horn can be turned into something we want,” she says.
What makes each horn unique is its natural colour, which can’t be replicated.
“When they [the cows] are alive, they use their horns to bump into anything that blocks them and that causes the difference in colours they have.
“Sometimes, it’s hard when the buyers want the exact same colour, but we only have one of it,” Chenda says.
Prices vary widely for each item. For jewellery, the most expensive piece is $35. The furniture can cost up to more than $200.
Chenda says that since the couple started their business, most of her customers have been foreigners. But locals have started showing interest of late after she marketed her products at workshops around the city.
Importance of recycling
The couple’s journey from their humble Prey Veng home to a storefront in the Sorya mall has been difficult.
They haven’t had to invest too much money in their enterprise since the horns are typically regarded as useless by locals. But their road to success was paved with years of research and labour.
“We started by picking up horns, wood and roots from the neighbourhood and later we started buying [horns], but they’re not expensive.
“It’s the strength and motivation required that exhaust us daily, especially when we have no one supporting us while some even look down on us.
“We’ve often been told by many locals that foreigners will never support us because we encourage slaughter to get the horns. I told them I don’t . . . I am trying to recycle what they’ve been throwing away into something valuable for them and the country,” Chenda says.
After many years in the business, she has learned a lot about the different benefits provided by working with discarded cow horns.
“I have this massage tool that is very good and can be used in different ways. When it touches our skin, it gives us a warm temperature, facilitates blood circulation and even burns fat in our body.
“I have researched it and found that Singapore uses this for massages and I have seen it in Cambodian massage parlours too,” she says.
Chenda says she is hoping to continue her self-development in many areas, and in the future, she wants to uplift those who aren’t succeeding in school by teaching them the skill of horn crafting.
“This might be just a horn, but the more you work with it, the more creative you become. Therefore, you can take this as your career and learn to use it in other ways that make it possible for you to push yourself upwards.
“I believe the younger generation can do even better than my husband and I if they are willing to learn,” she says.
Finally, Chenda has a message for all Cambodians: “The trash you’ve been throwing away is valuable. If you throw away only a little, you might not see the problem.
“But if you continue to throw away things, the trouble will come back right at you. It will never go away unless we do something.
“I want to prompt people to be united and learn to be as creative as possible with the litter they throw away. It’s our country. At the end of the day, we should be accountable for our actions and I believe it starts with each one of us,” she says.
For more information, visit Somonea’s Facebook page or contact them by telephone at 011805866/087447386.