Sepak builds e-commerce platform to connect local artisans with the world

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Using traditionally made fabric, bags are designed with modern touch. Photo supplied

There are a lot of people – both tourists and natives – who would love to buy local products for themselves or as gifts to friends and family, but they often have trouble finding what they’re looking for despite the fact
that there are many Cambodian artisans with high quality products all over the country that often have trouble finding ways to reach new clients.

Lim Kanika noticed that this disconnect between customers and artisans was a persistent problem and she co-founded her organisation Sepak to bring both sides together and attempt to solve it.

Kanika used to work as a product manager with the Nomi Network, which provides training for artisans in how to design and manage products that can be produced in Cambodia and made by Cambodians.

“I worked for three years with artisans in the Nomi Network. What I observed is that they produced brilliant and pleasing products – but what they didn’t have was an understanding of marketing or good management of their marketing.

“Then I had a friend who works in human resource management who was always having a hard time finding gifts for her staff members so she was seeing the same problem that I was but from a consumer standpoint, and so together we founded Sepak.

“I had the idea to create this Khmer handicrafts online platform that would bring together handicraft makers and customers who are looking to find the real locally made products, sort of like a specialized version of Etsy focused exclusively on Cambodian artisans.

“And so with the experience I already had working with craftsmen, I continued to have a good relationship with them and so all of this led to us starting Sepak,” Kanika tells The Post.

Kanika says that although Sepak is only online for now and has no actual physical location or shop for customers to go, if customers wish to see the products then Sepak is willing to show them by appointment.

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The products from Sepak are almost 100 per cent handmade and by Cambodian artisans. Photo supplied

Sepak opened in early 2019 as a for-profit social enterprise – meaning it is a business so it is interested in making money, but it tries to provide some kind of larger benefit to society while doing so.

Kanika had noted that in the provinces there are few job opportunities these days and a huge number of workers were having to migrate in order to find employment – either within Cambodia to the cities or abroad to places like Thailand.

An unusually high percentage of Cambodian children are now raised by grandparents while their parents go and work elsewhere. Some of the jobs they end up at can be exploitative, such as KTV establishments
that sometimes serve as fronts for prostitution, but many women choose to work there anyways because the pay is better than factories or shops.

“Seeing all this suffering is what drives me to make my business be not just a business but a way for us to create jobs for people, generate income for them and reduce migration,” Kanika says.

The products from Sepak are almost 100 per cent handmade by Cambodian artisans. Nearly 30 products including purses, handbags, straps, baskets, masks, scarves, jewellry, earrings, bracelets and some kitchen accessories are now available.

The products are mostly made from natural materials such as water hyacinth, clay, ceramic and others. The bags are generally made of woven fabric and leather and they combine into an attractive and stylish accessory.

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Nearly 30 products from different organisations include the highly demanded fabric masks. Photo supplied

Due to Covid, masks are currently their best selling product. Customers who have used their masks say that they are not too stuffy and they don’t cause any skin irritation like some of the synthetic masks do.

Sepak receives 90% of their support from local customers, but Kanika has also been sending samples of their products abroad to try and establish overseas markets for them, as she hopes to take Sepak worldwide.

“Our clients in Japan have been very happy with the products we’ve exported to them. We always work responsibly and meet our deadlines and that has given us a good reputation so now we have the capacity to produce larger orders to meet the demands of bigger companies,” Kanika says.

The price depends on the items that the patrons want and also how intricate or complicated it is to manufacture. Masks can be as little as $1.50 whereas bags and other items can go for anywhere from $3 to $60.

Sepak initially faced criticism from some people because their prices were considered too high for products that were locally made, but according to Kanika those people’s understanding of the situation is somewhat backwards.

Sepak deals in items that are made by hand by individual artisans, not by machines in a factory, and that takes time, effort and skill – and that costs money.

“When people think of local products here they sometimes think that they will be outdated or poor quality or overpriced, but we are very selective about what we associate ourselves with so that simply isn’t the
case at Sepak,” she says.

Kanika is trying to raise awareness among Cambodians about the benefits of supporting local Cambodian products. It helps Cambodian artisans and keeps traditional Khmer cultural arts alive and even profitable. In some cases the techniques being used to make the products have been handed down over many generations from ancestors.

In addition to all of that, buying locally helps to develop the nation’s economy and lift the poor up out of poverty.

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Customised mugs are produced by local artisans. Photo supplied

“So far, most people have been open-minded and supportive. They have put themselves in the artisans’ shoes and know that although it is a little more expensive, it’s top-quality.

“It is the blood and sweat artisans have put into their creations and most of them aren’t working to get rich, they are just working to survive and what they do is far more labor intensive than working with machinery,” she says.

Kanika says that for Sepak’s future plans she wants to develop their wholesale business, expand the export market abroad, improve on the creativity and design of the products and add more options in each category.

“I’d also like to improve our packaging. High quality packaging is not that accessible yet in our country compared to other countries,” says Kanika.

Sepak’s mission to promote Khmer arts and crafts isn’t always an easy one but with some early successes already achieved and a solid plan for the future, Kanika is optimistic about how far they can go.

Kanika’s final message is that “if you support us, we can survive. Our business will move forward, our culture will be preserved. On the other hand, without any support – we could be forced to close at any time.”

For more information Sepak can be contacted via their Facebook page @sepakcambodia