How many times do you say you’d love to make a difference to the world but do nothing about it?
Well, enterprising self-confessed ‘high fliers’, Brit Debbie Watkins and Dutch Marc Lansu not only decided to give a little back by volunteering overseas for a year but ended up ditching their old jobs and their old lives to transform Cambodia’s exploding plastic bag population.
That was back in the mid-2000s. Now they have a burgeoning social enterprise business based in Chamcar Bei that employs local Cambodians to make funky homewares and accessories using discarded plastic bags, as well as a non-profit travel business, Carpe Diem Travel Limited, that gives international visitors unique and personal tours of the country.
Since they began, they have single-handedly (or perhaps multi-handedly!) significantly reduced the numbers of plastic bags that were littering fields and roadsides by more than 200,000. Each bag is carefully washed and dried and then guillotined into strips to make usable ‘yarn’ that can be crocheted into hardwearing and waterproof cushions, baskets, bags, purses. A single floor cushion, for example, is made up of about 1200 bags.
Intrigued by how two disconnected people ended up as both life and business partners, I decided to find out more.
Here’s what Debbie had to say …
Tell us about yourselves. What are your backgrounds?
We met in Cambodia while undertaking voluntary work for local organisations. We both had previously been career “high fliers” – me as Head of Business Development for a technology firm in the City of London, and Marc as a Customer Advisor for a Dutch Bank. We had originally – independently from one another – taken a one-year career break to travel around the world and had decided to stay for longer in Cambodia to “do something useful”. We became captivated by the country, and in particular the warmth and sincerity of the local people which has triumphed over the tragedy and heartbreak inflicted on the country during the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge.
What made you decide to set up Carpe Diem Travel? And why Cambodia – what captivated you about the place?
The idea of starting a travel business came from two directions. We wanted to share with the outside world the places we had seen, the people we’d met – to enable a real insight into the country, its history and people. During our time in Cambodia, we’d also met many wonderful people who, despite obvious intelligence, integrity and initiative were unable to find anything but the most menial work. Over a few beers one evening we came up with the idea to combine the two aims – providing work, training and a sense of purpose to local people in need, while offering international travellers the kind of up-close, personal experiences rarely encountered in “package” tours. And so Carpe Diem (Latin for “seize the day”) Travel was born.
Where did the idea to start FunkyJunk come from? Clearly sustainable practice is very important to you – so why did you decide to focus on reusing plastic bags?
The original idea started in 2005, as a direct result of our leading tours throughout the countryside. Plastic bags were everywhere! We originally started picking them up, but, of course, the next time we came there were more. So we decided we needed to find a way to reduce the problem, with the aim of finding a low-cost, low-technology solution that could achieve a number of objectives:
– Motivate local people to collect plastic bags from the streets and fields
– Convert the collected bags into something that had a value and could be sold
– Create jobs for local underprivileged people
– Raise awareness of the importance of not littering.
Can you give us an insight into the workings of FunkyJunk? Who are the others you work with?
FunkyJunk initially instigated a partnership with a local NGO in a rural area in the South of Cambodia, who helped us to identify potential producers and provided a small building in which to work.
FunkyJunk Recycled was formally registered as a Community Interest Company (CIC) in the UK in 2009. The requirements and obligations of this legal form can be read at www.cicregulator.gov.uk. This structure was chosen for a number of reasons:
• The UK Government requires CICs to achieve and report on the social activities that they stated in their original registration
• CIC status restricts the dividends that can be paid to shareholders, so encouraging social investors who do not expect excessive returns, and ensuring the majority of profits are reinvested in the social activities
• UK reporting requirements ensure that all accounting is transparent
• In order to manage sales for a number of centres established around the world, and provide reassurance to purchasers that advance payments are secure.
What does a typical day involve?
I don’t really have a typical day. I actually have a full time job, so my involvement is more at the strategic, rather than operational level. Marc deals with day-to-day operations and he works on a daily basis with our in-country production team to make sure that our clients are delighted with their purchases! He also visits Cambodia regularly – we lived there for six years and so have a deep personal commitment to helping communities and the environment – and manages volunteers who contribute expert skills as well as ensuring that everything is running smoothly and that our team is happy and motivated. We live in the Netherlands now; we moved here from Bangladesh in the summer.
What’s been the most challenging part of this initiative?
We have had lots of challenges!
Who or what motivates you?
The number of plastic bags we’ve cleared – over 200,000 so far! And our continuing organic growth, offering more training and employment opportunities to more people.
What’s been a career highlight to date?
Being a finalist in the BBC World Challenge (one of only 12 from 640 applicants), and being featured in a documentary on BBC World.
The BBC World Challenge is a global competition aimed at championing and rewarding projects and businesses that show enterprise and innovation at a grassroots level.
[You must watch the video here as it’s amazing to see exactly what they do, how the products are made and what a difference Debbie and Marc have made]
Do you have new designs/ideas in the pipeline and/or can you discuss future projects?*
This is confidential, I’m afraid … but we will update you as soon as anything happens!