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Upcycling plastic in Cambodia

Plastic consumption in Cambodia is synonymous with daily life. In Phnom Penh alone, around 10 million plastic bags are used on a daily basis. In our 21st Capability Program, the team around our social entrepreneur Rithy Hel co-created Green Lotus Panel, Cambodia's very first industrial-sized plastic recycling facility. Once production is at full scale, the social enterprise aims at upcycling 14t of plastic each year whilst creating 8 jobs. In this blog article, the team takes you onto their learning journey as social entrepreneurs.

What challenge did you encounter in your community upon the start of the Capability Program?

One challenge is the overall perception to recycling and recycled goods. In general, Cambodian are quality oriented and secondhand goods or goods that are made out of recycled material are not having the best reputation. It is vital for us to change that perception by offering high quality products where the message around recycling and community work has a strong presence but at the same time the products themselves appeal to the market.

The Team of the 21st Capability Program in Cambodia

What solutions did your team come up with?

The initial thought was to build different products depending on the materials available. The idea was to build products mainly for local households. However, after our visit to the local landfill and our first prototyping sessions, we quickly discovered the need to think bigger. If we were to make a real impact, we needed to do something that can be scaled up.

This is how we came up with the idea of plastic panels made from recycled plastic such as bottles, bottle caps etc. For this purpose, we needed a workshop and the right type of machinery to produce such panels. The idea with the panels is that we either can sell the panels to customers as they are, or in our workshop modify the panels into other items such as furniture or components for furniture.

First prototyping sessions and the first idea of the panel itself.

What have you achieved so far after the program ended?

We have found the perfect location for our workshop, rented the place, and built up the production line with needed machinery that we have purchased. In addition, we have started prototyping, i.e. testing our panel production to fine tune the production process, understand the various elements that impact the quality of our product, and further help us understand what type of customer needs we can meet. Finally, we have also employed our first employee, who helps Rithy in the workshop, both with the panel production itself and other duties around the workshop.

Production of the first panel in the workshop

What challenges have you encountered?

The first challenge has been ensuring that our workshop meets the requirements of our production in terms of electricity capacity, security, and overall quality of the workshop.  The Green Lotus Eco Panels team is helping Rithy with tasks that can be done remotely, however, with most tasks related to workshop renovation, Rithy has had to do most of the work. We are please both for the business and for Rithy that we now have our first employee, Ratana, to support Rithy with day-to-day tasks in the workshop. 

The second challenge was to ensure we have the right machinery for the production. We had to ensure that we have a good understanding of the process, understand the machinery required, find the right suppliers, and ensure that our decisions are in line with the budget we have. In this part of the process the team has been able to support Rithy in decision making and communication with suppliers. However, in topics that require local knowledge for instance around logistics, import taxes etc., Rithy has had to do most of all work himself. As we are in prototyping phase, the next challenge is to ensure that we get achieve the right quality without panels, confirm our customer approach, product offering and price point etc. As well as ensure that we have the right monitoring and reporting in place to ready for production volumes to increase. 

Overall, it is clear that at times it is challenging to fully work remotely, both in terms of time zones and in terms of not being able to discuss and align things in person. However, with frequent contact and discussions within the group, we believe that we have managed this challenge fairly well so far.  

Related to the infrastructure in Cambodia there are some challenges that we have had to take into consideration and learn to work around such as shortage of electricity and consistency of electrical supply. Related to the overall business environment, there is not much structured support available from the government of local authorities. Further we have encountered relatively high logistics costs including taxation when importing machinery from abroad. This in combination with a competitive local market proposes a challenge which in turn further encourages to use the local sources for our business requirements.

Bottle caps are collected and turned into plastic panels

What have been your major learnings from the program and your social enterprise?

Overall, we have learned a lot. We are a large group of individuals, that now after a bit more than a year from first meeting each other, feel like we are a big family. We all had our unique skills, competencies, and personalities through which we have been able to contribute to our project and business in our own ways. 

To name a few things, we’ve learned to use the design thinking methods to build a social business from scratch. We’ve learned to source for machinery, to plan a production plant, how to process different materials to get something new out of it. We’ve of course also learned a lot from each other, our different cultures and backgrounds. This has really been a unique experience for us and luckily, we still get to be part of Green Lotus Eco Panels and what hopefully will be a success story in the future. 

One further learning is that things usually take longer than expected especially in case you do it for the first time. For instance, to build up a comprehensive understanding of the logistics process and import process for the first machinery we purchased, took far longer than we expected, having an impact on the overall timeline for our project. 

What support are you seeking from our BOOKBRIDGE Family?

In relation to driving our business itself, we are happy with the current level of support. However, one area where support would be appreciated, is connecting us with potential customers and/or other stakeholders that could act as influencers for us.

Rithy Hel, Social Entrepreneur at Green Lotus Panel


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