Be the Change Network

aka "Kari's Blog"

Archive for the ‘2008 April Trip’

Pizza Virgins

May 09, 2008 By: Kari Category: 2008 April Trip, General No Comments →

by George Grady Grossman

Phnom Penh, Cambodia. My last days in Cambodia are filled with meetings, training and shopping. I met with Language Corps Special Projects Coordinator, Virath Chau, a Cambodian American whose parents survived the Khmer Rouge and immigrated to California in the early 90’s. Virath had visited Cambodia several times with family and when he graduated from collefe decided to teach native English speakers how to teach English to Cambodians. Once a teacher has completed their contract, they can volunteer at other schools. I am pitching the Grady Grossman School to be part of the pilot program. It would be awesome to have a native speaker who is familiar the Cambodia to serve the school for 3 months.

My next meeting is with a micro-finance lending institution I found through KIVA, an international organization that authorizes in-country microfinance institutions. Yoen and I meet with Chan Mach, General Manager of CREDIT Microfinance Institution of Cambodia. Yoen is very skeptical as we arrive. I explain we are here just to learn about their program and how it works. Mach explains the KIVA process and I explain the mission of the Grady Grossman School and I give an example of a potential empowering situation in our village.

Part of Ban Vanna’s plan is to get a power tiller and cart. A power tiller is a supped up lawn mower engine attached to a homemade wooden chassis that can be used for a variety of tasks – such as pull a trailer to collect saw dust in the deep woods, till and cultivate soil for growing chilies, and transporting and selling briquettes. In my example a person, or group could be formed to seek a loan for a power tiller business. They would perform services at the school for a set number of days a month and the rest of the time hire out to other villagers. The going rate to rent a power tiller is $40/day. That’s a months income for some, but could make the difference in a successful crop or not.

When we leave Yoen wants to know why we just don’t give them a power tiller because they need one. If one person gets a loan and is successful, that is empowering and sets a trend in the village that microloan can work. Mach likes my example and says he will discuss it with the KIVA team. Just as we stand to say goodbye Mach asks me one more question, how much percentage interest do you think they would be willing to pay? I’m a bit surprised at this question, so I say as low as possible. He then goes on to say they typically like 2-3%. That sounds fair to me until he adds, per month. 24-36% per year, that’s like ox-cart robbery!

He explains the cost of money from lenders in Europe and the West – their loan rate is 11 to 15% ! How is someone supposed to get ahead with rates like that? When we leave, Yoen asks again why we just don’t give them a power tiller because they need one. I said that if one person is successful, it may inspire others to get their own loans without our help.

Then I give Yoen Microsoft Excel lessons. I’ve designed a series of spreadsheets for monthly reporting for Sales, Expenses, Payroll etc. If he can complete them, it save valuable time and encourage financial discipline. It’s a long day and we repeat everything at least twice. He is enthusiastic but…did I mention it was a long day! In the end he got it. This morning he told me how useful it will be to have the forms and just finish them on the computer and email them. And he saw for himself that the woman who claimed she paid for her briquettes yesterday…didn’t.

Ban Vanna and School Director Ngim Sobun roll into Phnom Penh for our last meeting and we talk of going for clay pot cooking. Clay pot cooking is like an electric skillet filled with boiling broth. As is bubbles away you add meats, seafood and veggies to cook. When finished you ladle it over rice. It’s Ch’ngang, tasty. To my surprise they asked for pizza instead.

My goal had been to not eat western food the entire trip, but the opportunity to watch a smiling, 50-something, Khmer Rouge survivor with poor teeth eat his first pizza is…priceless. We have a grand time and half way through Sobun confesses he has never had pizza either.

Next something amazing happens, Sobun starts a conversation with me. Over the next hour Yoen tirelessly translates the good, the bad and the ugly of education in Cambodia. The old PAP funds have been replaced by P.B. funds from UNICEF. Seems the government doesn’t pay anything for operations just salaries. But the PB funds always come late as unmotivated school directors fail to complete requests on time so funds for the whole Aural School District are held up. All teachers got a 15,000 Riel/month pay raise in 2006 but it finally made it into teachers pay in 2008. The average teacher at our school now makes 165,000Riel or $41.25/month.

At our school teachers earn a bonus of $20/month for perfect attendance and promptness. Teacher absenteeism is a huge problem at rural schools. Most teachers coming out of teacher training do not want to come to Aural, rural and rustic living far from home is not attractive for a new teacher so typically we would be left with the weakest candidates. But with support over the years from the Friends of the Grady Grossman School in the USA our school is gaining a reputation as a desirable school. The new school year, starting in October, Sobum will be interviewing for new teachers. He says our school is in demand.

M last day, I meet with Ban Vanna and crew to discuss the long-term business plan. My 2 days selling and marketing gave me a better perspective on the plan. Ban Vanna wants to be self sufficient but the question is how do we get there. His requests for a 2-ton truck ($11,000), powertiller and cart ($2,500) and facility upgrades and expansion ($2,500). The expenses are legitimate but it’s money we don’t have. We discuss production levels of 3000kg/week in the dry season; with a drying shelter that level could be achieved even in the rainy season. We discuss sales and travel schedules and diesel engine maintenance. His face drops when I tell him we don’t have the money to do it now, but I assure him we will work hard to raise the money as quickly as possible. That’s seems to perk him back up. I remind him that in January he promised to me he could assemble a team and produce hi-quality briquettes; and he did. Now I ask him to be patient so we can get to the next level.

To all our Friends of the Grady Grossman School please help us help them. Network for Good offers a simple and secure monthly recurring donation option. Your monthly donation at any level would go along way to help the community of Chrauk Tiek build it’s own sustainability and support its own school. Now is the time to give. NETWORK FOR GOOD

The Selling Fields

May 08, 2008 By: Kari Category: 2008 April Trip No Comments →

by George Grady Grossman

Takeo Province, Cambodia. On May 5th we awoke early with 44 bags of “Smart Choice Fuel” briquettes weighing 50 kilograms each – that’s 2200kg or 4850lbs. We hired Odom and his 2-ton “super truck” to transport us and the briquettes to Takeo Province.

It would be so much easier and profitable to sell our briquettes locally but when the forest is close and free it’s hard to convince someone to try cooking with a bagel shaped briquette at 500 Riel (13 cents) per kilo. The extremely poor always have more time then money. Every day I see people doing the darnedest things that take an incredible amount time so as not to spend a precious Riel.

We drive to Takeo province because that is where the trees are already gone. Here the rural poor often cook with cow dung or rice straw or woodsticks that arrive in vans from the mountains. Our briquettes are welcomed by our core customers. We arrive at our first village about 3:00pm, hop out, set up a stove and build a cooking fire. I watch. Curiosity brings people over; Yoen and Savin start telling the “Smart Choice Fuel” story: where they come from, how to light them, why to use them. We get questions, we get skeptics and we pass out brochures. Then we get sales.

First someone wants one bag. Then another. Yoen runs across the street to a client who bought a bag last trip. She would like one more as well. However, we have some customer service issues. One woman complains that the briquettes crumbled. We knew an early batch didn’t have enough binder (scrap paper) to hold the briquettes together. We offer her a credit and she buys another bag. I work at teaching Yoen and Savin the importance of customer service. Everyone must be happy. The customer is always right. Villages are small, people talk , our briquettes can’t afford a bad reputation.

Our next stop on Highway #3 is a large market area. The results are different. People are indifferent; more cook with gas. We only sell 2 bags.

We visit existing customers in the next village. One very poor family only uses them for special occasions, using cow dung for everyday needs. Some customers have only used a few briquettes. We review the lighting procedures. Some people bought a bag but missed the part on how to light them. Many complain about the smoke. I remind our crew to explain that lighting a briquette is like lighting wood sticks and charcoal or any other fire. It smokes before the flames kick in.

Just before dark we demonstrate to a man who has a lumber mill and sells charcoal. I figure this will be a tough sell. Most of our customers are women. Women do all the cooking and typically control the family money. Usually men just ask questions and then leave. Some bring back a wife who makes the decision. Part of our manager’s plan is for women from the production facility to travel and sell the briquettes. To my surprise, the man is impressed and buys a bag. I ask Yoen to make sure he follow up with him for feedback on the next trip.

The next morning we arise early again, going from village to village and stopping at the markets. I hear similar stories to the day before. I juggle briquettes to entertain the kids, silently thanking my Dad for this great skill. Often customers want me to deliver a bag to their house, others want a picture. It’s fun but hard work. A man who bought 7 bags on a previous trip now wants a refund. Yoen is perplexed. The man also sells charcoal. I start asking questions: Do you use the briquettes yourself? How to you demonstrate? Where are the briquettes now?

He complains the profit margin is not good. He makes 100Riel profit on charcoal. I ask how much charcoal costs? 700Riel. If we wholesale briquettes to him from 500 and he retails them for 600, the profit is the same. The problem is that the price is not much better than charcoal; people know how to use charcoal.

This is what I came to analyze, briquette sales points on both price a margin. How do we give this man incentive to sell our briquettes? Leaving out the environmental factors, the incentive must be financial. We spend a lot of time with this man and in the end he agrees to try harder. We agree to wholesale only to him as our exclusive vendor, and to make demonstrations to support his retail outlet. Learning the difference between training a vendor and selling to a customer is valuable experience for Yoen and Savin.

As the sun begins to set, we roll into a village where we have never sold before. We have 17 bags left and begin the demonstration. We sell one bag, then another, one women takes two. I count the bags, 12 left, 8 left. Then the yelling starts. A women claims she paid but Yoen doesn’t have her written into the sales log. I sense this could ruin everything. She yells more. Yoen talks faster. She claims she paid. I know enough about Cambodians to understand that this is a no win situation. Realizing Yoen may not be able to solve this, I finally step into the ruckus. He will need to save face and so will she. The selling has stopped.

Interestingly, at first this woman had been interested in becoming a vendor and had exchanged contact information. I told her we can only do business with people we trust, if you cheat us you will not be a vendor. Yoen translates and she begins yelling again. I interrupt and tell her I will give her a bag. This calms her down a little. I repeat my offer again. Finally she is silent. I tell her when we return to the office, we will compare our sales report with our inventory and our money and we will know if she is telling the truth or not. If she is right we will call her to apolgize. If we have proof she cheated us, she will not be a vendor. She stomps off and her bag sits on the ground. We sell another bag and finally we are sold out except for her bag sitting on the ground. It had been a selling frenzy. We are ecstatic and exhausted.

Savin introduces me to a man he says is in the military; the man understands why we are doing this and wants to know more. I tie the school, rural sustainable development and the environment together as best I can. He thanks me and hopes I will continue to help the people of Cambodia and the environment. He explains that in Takeo all the trees are gone….it used to be covered in forest.

Our conversation is interrupted by the horn from our driver, time to go.

The women who claims she paid arrives. Without a word she motions for the bag. Silently we hoist it onto her moto and she races off. I wish she had heard the conversation with the military man. Timing is everything.

Dance of the Tarps

May 06, 2008 By: George Category: 2008 April Trip No Comments →

by George Grady Grossman

Chrauk Tiek, Cambodia. Everything that happens at the Grady Grossman School seems to be a drama. Teacher Sa Tum has not returned to school after Khmer New Year – rumor has it he is off proposing marriage – what should be the consequence to his monthly bonus? Long discussions over cooking equipment for the workers at the briquette production facility. Everything is about money. In the mean time, I meet with Production Manager Bun Vanna to figure out how to dry briquettes in the rainy season while reviewing the entire business model. We discuss future income-generation and sustainable projects such as dry rice farming and cultivating chilies on the land behind the school.

Sometimes I just have to walk away from all the drama and discussion, and visit the classrooms, just too keep myself focused an why I am here. My favorite is first grade because they are learning the Khmer alphabet.

When I arrived with our Country Director, Yoen Soek, Training Coordinator, Savin Oeun and our guest Alexandra Daniels from Arizona, we were greeted by the new music class. It was drizzling so we crowded into the unfinished “Peter Pisay” Library for two traditional songs and dancing. I’m happy to find Riat, the blind boy, on the drum and the girls dressed in their fancy costumes. The dance was basic compared to what I have seen performed by the Cambodian community in the United States but it’s a start.

Unfortunately since our last visit our master musician and teacher, Em Lout, was forced to quit because of failing health. The three new music teacher came to work for us after we heard them play at teacher Bonna Lida’s wedding in January. After the music and introductions, the leader Mr. Lim requested more instruments. The class is expanding and more students want to learn to play. Another set of traditional instruments costs about $600 and the teachers are eager to turn this little band into an income-generating business for the school, hiring out for local weddings. There is significant local demand for this service.

Our production facility has 18 energetic workers who can produce about 400 kilos of briquettes a day in the dry season but rainy season productivity is hampered by lack of a drying facility. Since we are selling all we can produce, increasing production is a priority. The rainy season in Cambodia means it’s hot and rainy almost every afternoon or evening. Sometimes it rains all night. Drying briquettes is really a dance of the tarps. They come off in the morning, then on again, then off again, all day long as the rain threatens.

Our workers are almost all women and many are widowed or divorced. The rest are girls who are not married and at some point dropped out of school. Several couple walk about 3 kilometers to work everyday. Since it’s so far for many, they don’t go home for lunch and cook together as a group. Chanu, the informal leader of the workers, always comes up to me and starts speaking in Khmer. She seems to think if she just talks slower I’ll somehow understand. Once Savin translates I hear that the group would like some proper cooking equipment. They estimate it will cost about $90 and I suggest they make a written request. Well feed workers make happy workers but we also want to build a partnership so I ask them, “what will you contribute?” First I watch a look of horror on their faces as Savin translates, then there is much discussion. I keep hearing “bprum roy” over and over – 500 Riel. They decide everyone will pitch in 500 Riel, workers and managers alike, and I agree to contribute the rest. Sok Sarith, our assistant manager, signs the request and I hand over the cash thinking they will go buy it in the morning. Much to my surprise within an hour, as the suns sets and we are dragging tarps over briquettes for the night, all the new kitchen equipment arrives. The next day they invited me for lunch.

I met with Bun Vanna, the Smart Choice Fuel production manager, to discuss the long term feasibility of manufacturing briquettes. One of my goals is to shift more ownership of the project from us to the village. Eventually our involvement will simply oversee how profit-sharing supports education projects at the school. Ultimately we hope to create a model whereby all income generating projects at the school will support literacy and life skills education. More local support equals better teachers, better teachers equals a better education for more students. Our goal is for all students to complete a primary education. Some may go on to secondary school. Bun Vanna, without my prompting, proposes such a plan and I am delighted. The plan is…. he is coming to Phnom Penh to discuss it on May 8. So stay tuned.

My last night we had a rousing party of karaoke and beer. Luckily the blasting karaoke is only in Khmer and I don’t have to sing but I danced with everyone. Teachers, musicians, the school director, community leaders, workers, managers and many children all dance and sing and laugh. In Kari’s presentation she always mentions that the “relationship matters as much as the money.” This is that moment.

These are good people who have had a hard go stretching all the way back to the Viet Nam war. Some are former Khmer Rouge, some are Souy hill tribe people, some are from other provinces displaced after the war and came looking for a new home, and some came recently to illegally log in the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary. The problems can be enormous when you are trying to survive. At midnight I dance a wary jig to my room, sneaking away so as not to be pulled back on the dance floor. I’m exhausted and go to sleep. They party for two more hours.

Rainstorms and Renewable Energy

April 29, 2008 By: Kari Category: 2008 April Trip, General 1 Comment →

By George Grady Grossman

Phnom Pehn, Cambodia. April 29, 2008 local time.

Cambodia has been a whirlwind of excitement for me on this trip. First it is the rainy season so every afternoon and night it rains as you’ve never seen in the American West. One night the thunder was crashing instantly after the lightning flash. Amazingly the power in Phnom Pehn never failed. Secondly, without Kari here to be my crutch, I’ve been forced to really work on my Khmer language skills and let’s just say I’ve gotten a lot of blank stares.

Today I met with Aurelien Herail, a biomass energy expert from GERES and Tong Chantheang, the General Secretary of the Training Unit of CEDAC. Along with Yoen Soek, our Country Director, and Savin Oeun, our Program Coordinator we discussed each of our organizations missions concerning renewable energy and biomass briquettes and ways to form partnerships. GERES offers us technical skill and research beyond our expertise and is willing to help test the quality our our briquettes. Third party independent testing will be valuable for marketing our “Smart Choice Fuel” as a viable alternative cooking fuel to charcoal and woodsticks. CEDAC has expertise to help us with the development of our training workshop. Although the particulars were not worked out the basis for working together has been established. CEDEC also wants to publish out story in their quarterly review called “Green Fire.” This will be more publicity for our alternative cooking fuel as well as our model of life skills supporting education.

Tomorrow I will be heading to Chrauk Tiek to spend 4 days at the Grady Grossman School. Supposedly the roads have been fixed since our trip in January. But only time will tell.

I am excited to meet the three new music teachers and see if the new “Peter Pisay” Library is complete. And the big question is how do we dry a briquette in the rainy season.

More to come so subscribe and stay tuned.