Battambang, a medium-sized city in Cambodia, has been relatively sheltered from globalization due to its remoteness. This has allowed traditional rural livelihoods to survive, notably through traditional businesses. However, the increasing pressure of the shifting economy is threatening the ability of these businesses to survive.
I recently got the chance to visit a family-owned rice-paper business on the outskirts of Battambang, whose activities illustrate the tension between traditional and globalised economies.
Rice paper making
The factory I visited is a family-run, home-based business where rice paper is made in the traditional way.
Traditional rice paper making is a two-person process requiring precision and organization. The rice is soaked into water, drained, and grained, until it becomes a very liquid white dough. It is then spread very thinly on pans and steamed. At this stage, the rice paper is soaked and therefore very fragile. It requires amazing dexterity to lift it from the pan and hang it on a plastic tube.
A second person takes the tube and delicately lays the rice paper onto a bamboo frame where it will dry for approximately two hours in the sun. Once dry, the rice paper is ready to be packed and sold on the local market.
Two members of the family work all day on this repetitive process. Each day, the family produces between 1000 and 2000 rice papers per day, depending on the rain.
Every hundred rice paper is sold for US$1,25 and 5 family members depend on it for their survival.
The family lives about 5 kilometers from Battambang city. Like many Cambodian families, their history was disrupted by the Khmer Rouge regime. In their case, they used to own both rice fields and the rice paper factory. Some of the rice growing in the fields was used for the making of the rice paper. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, families were displaced. Even though the family luckily got their house back, their rice fields had been taken by somebody else.
Henceforth, they can only run the rice paper production and have to purchase the rice. Their margin has significantly reduced and they barely produce enough rice paper to survive.
A precarious business challenged by international pressures
The business of rice paper – a common ingredient in Asian food – has been industrialized. Factories in Viet Nam are now producing tons of rice paper, of standardised size and quality, all year long. Economies of scale allow them to sell cheaper rice paper. An inability to compete against such industry makes traditional rice paper makers very vulnerable.
On the other hand, the tourism industry is growing bigger and bigger in Cambodia and more and more people are shifting their activity towards it. However, and more relevantly in the case of Battambang, tourism is very seasonal and, at the peak of the dry season, there are no tourists to be seen. Relying on tourism alone to live is therefore a risky activity.
A hybrid model of business to ensure the livelihood of the family
The tour I took to visit that family has a policy of paying money to each family visited. However, they decided to pay them little enough to be only supplementing their income and avoid them to become dependant on tourism income. This hybrid economic model compensates for the loss of income generated by the increasing pressure on industrial paper rice.
Improving livelihood and business sustainability
Yet, with markets being progressively replaced by supermarkets, it is to be feared that traditional rice paper making will not find a sufficient market to sell the totality of their production. There is therefore a need to rethink their business model to improve their livelihood and make it more sustainable.
Maybe they could be linked to a fair trade enterprise that could help them export their products to international markets and make a better living out of it.
Could globalization be a solution to the challenges it poses for traditional rice paper makers?