How Cambodia’s hyacinth weavers are changing lives forever

On the outskirts of Siem Reap, non-profit organization Rock notch changing the lives of Cambodian women and helping the environment at the same time. It’s also a brand new Intrepid experience for 2023. We sat down with founder Hor Sounsrors to find out how invasive weeds can be put to good use.

Looking over Tonlé Sap Lake to the northwest Cambodia, you can see huge clumps of greenery scattering the water flowing between the stilt houses in Kompong Khleang. It looks pretty, but the green is actually water hyacinth, an invasive species from the upper Amazon basin, half a world away – and it’s a huge ecological problem.

“When it grows, it gets thick,” says Hor Sounsrors, also known as ‘Sros’, who runs Cambodian non-profit Rock notch. “This means that sunlight does not enter the water, so the fish and other species below cannot get enough oxygen. In some places, you can actually walk on it.”

Turning pests into profit

A woman sits in a boat next to a bundle of water hyacinth

Water hyacinth can double in size every two weeks. It is a virulent pest that chokes waterways and blocks the passage of boats. But Sros founded Rokhak to tackle the problem in a unique way. The center employs local Cambodian women to collect hyacinth from the Tonlé Sap and surrounding rivers, dry it, steam it and weave it into baskets, rugs and other handicrafts.

It’s a double win for local people: they help the ecosystem breathe and create valuable employment at the same time.

“Three years ago I went to this village and found an old woman living in a tent – just a plastic bag strung over it like a roof,” says Sros. “But she lived next to all these water hyacinths. So we trained her to collect the plants, and then people started buying the stems from her, and now she’s making a good living. She uses the profits to plant fruits and vegetables that she can also sell.”

Locals can collect up to 200 hyacinth stems at a time; they are brought back to Rokhak, dried in the sun and then steamed over charcoal to deepen the color and kill any bacteria. The stalks are then carefully woven by hand, turning an ecological disaster into something useful – and best of all, valuable.

Empowerment of local women

A woven handbag with circular handles.  A blue and purple scarf is tied around one handle

Sros says she currently trains 13 women to weave the water hyacinth, and Rokhak employs five more full-time in the workshop, where she produces products for local businesses in Siem Reap or for guests who visit the center.

Travelers can purchase intricate rugs, beautiful bags and hand-woven plant baskets, with all profits going back into the local community. Rokhak also holds workshops where visitors can practice their hyacinth weaving skills.

“Travellers will come to make the small bowls themselves as a souvenir,” says Sros. “It’s really hands-on. We train them the same way we train women in the villages.”

This training has real financial value. It can take three artisans a few weeks to weave a single rug, but each rug can sell for up to $300 — more than most Cambodians see in a month.

In addition to its ecological impact, Rokhak is changing the lives of local women. The center’s real product, and its continuing legacy, is employment and financial independence. It takes about two weeks to learn how to weave water hyacinth, but once you have the skill, you have a trade for life.

This is a big deal in Cambodia where International Labor Organization estimates women spend a disproportionate amount of time on unpaid care work (about 188 minutes per day compared to 18 minutes for men). It is a gender-based inequality that has a real impact on women’s lives and livelihoods.

Looking to the future

“When you have no income, you have no voice,” says Sros. “Most of the women in the floating villages have five or six children. Many children do not go to school and there is always housework to do. I respect that so much, but if you ask these women what they do, they will say: “I don’t have a job. I’m just a housewife.”

“My mother always told me: ‘You have to be independent. You have to stand up for yourself’. Of course, these women still have to raise their children, but now we can give them the skills to make a living and work from home.”

Sros began her career as an accountant, but teaching was always her dream. Having recently earned her Bachelor of Education, she says the ultimate goal for Rokhak is to expand the center, educate more women and eventually launch educational programs for the local children.

“I do some fun activities for the kids in my village,” says Sros. “You cook, paint, draw, and they also get to experience weaving. Running a non-profit is difficult – the money to start Rokhak came from my own savings – but these women and these children keep me going.”

Do you have older children yourself? Experience Rokhak for yourself at our Cambodia family holiday with teenagers.

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