Prom Rayin, with his thick glasses sitting atop the tip of his nose, is painstakingly stitching together thick pieces of discarded tire tubes using a sewing machine provided by his boss, being careful not to break the machine’s needle against the thick rubber.
As he continues his work, drawing templates on other pieces of rubber and stitching the pieces together, his product begins to take form – a beautiful wallet made from recycled tire tubes.
“I am a disabled person; I cannot walk or do other jobs like normal people, but I have been given a chance to produce handmade products that I am proud of,” Mr Rayin, a former tailor, says. “I support my family through this work.”
Mr Rayin, who was born with birth defects to both his legs and cannot walk, is just one of nearly 20 disabled people working for Bun Naratito, the founder of Kraftino wallets.
Mr Naratito looks over the shoulder of Mr Rayin inside his home in Boeung Tumpun commune, the company’s headquarters, and smiles.
“At first, I was planning to just donate money to some disabled people that I know in order to help their livelihoods,” he says. “But they would not accept the money. After getting to know them better and learning of their excellent artisan skills, I founded the wallet company and employed them.”
Mr Naratito, 31, launched his company in 2016 and has since seen it rapidly expand, both domestically and internationally.
Every month, he sells 500 to 1,000 wallets within and outside Cambodia, with overseas customers mostly placing orders from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Mr Naratito sells the wallets at a discounted price within Cambodia, about $15, and at a markup to overseas customers, about $20.
He says thanks to the meticulous work of his artisans, his wallets are in high demand abroad, and are beginning to take root within the country as well as some youths and middle class customers turn away from brand name products to support locally crafted merchandise.
“We have faced a lot of difficulty, especially because some of the tubes are so thick that they break the needles of our sewing machines,” he says. “But the thick tubes make the final product one of high quality, which can withstand years of use while maintaining their original beauty.”
“And because our artisans are so skilled and talented, we have overcome obstacles and continue to grow,” he added.
Mr Naratito says his employees are now able to earn from $200 to $300 per month, an income that most of them never thought possible due to their disabilities.
In Cambodia, his wallets, which got their name by being shortened from craft innovation, are on sale at Little Fashion, H Style, and a shop behind the Royal Palace.
Mr Rayin, who supports his wife and 13-year-old daughter through his work, takes a break from his stitching and says he joined the company upon its launch and has since developed a system to produce from three to five wallets per day.
“I can also now customise the wallets for repeat customers who want them to have certain designs,” the 45-year-old says. “I’m proud of my work and I’m proud that youths are beginning to take an interest in our hard work.”
Men Sinoeun, executive director of the Artisans Association of Cambodia, says Kraftino wallets is the embodiment of what his association advocates – empowering local artisans to produce high quality, local products that can be sold domestically and internationally.
“I have seen that many youths and middle class consumers always like to buy brand name goods from overseas, but our artisans are capable of producing better products,” he says. “Kraftino wallets is the perfect example. It has grown in popularity and now sells its wallets to Cambodian youths who think they are cool and also want to support their fellow countrymen.”
Mr Sinoeun says Kraftino wallets is just one of about 50 companies or organisations under his umbrella, equating to about 5,000 artisans that he advocates for with the help of the government, which has been a key partner in promoting handmade local products.
Mr Sinoeun aids his members by encouraging them to display their products at exhibitions and in markets, upping the reputations of their products and drawing in new customers.
“Our artisanal products face stiff competition from brand name products, but Cambodians are beginning to take notice and turn toward our products rather than the big-name products that are not of the same high quality,” he says, noting about 70 percent of orders are for overseas customers and 30 percent for local customers currently.
Back in the Kraftino shop, local customer Oeng Chhoun, 24, is waiting for Mr Rayin to complete a custom designed wallet for him, his second purchase after using his first wallet for about two years.
“I’m a modern youth, but I still use local handicraft products because I want to support our country’s talented artisans,” he says. “I’m not ashamed to not be walking around with brand name products; I’m proud my wallet was carefully made by a Cambodian artisan and have been trying to sway my friends to support this company as well.”
“I just want Cambodian youths to not think that locally produced products are of bad quality,” he adds. “The reality is that they are of better quality.”
As Mr Naratito oversees Mr Rayin putting the final touches on the custom wallet for Mr Chhoun, he says the creative designs chosen by his workers are attracting local customers.
“Because the tubes have marks from the tire, our artisans use it to their advantage and come up with some very unique designs,” he says. “Our wallets are one of a kind.”
Mr Rayin hammers in the last stitches to the custom wallet and hands it over to Mr Chhoun, who happily inspects it and gives Mr Rayin a pat on the shoulder.
“You’ve done it again,” he says. “I will be proud to show off this wallet when I pull it out to pay for things.”