One of the best things about exploring new countries, towns and cities is discovering unique businesses, especially those hidden within a tourist-centric community. It’s typically easier to find top-rated attractions and activities through the internet but there can be a real benefit to just walking around the area you’re staying in and seeing what draws your attention.
Genevieve’s Fair Trade Village (or GFTV) did that for me with just a couple of sandwich board signs at the end of an alleyway in between a shop and the Indian restaurant/hotel that we were staying at. One board advertised a selection of products handcrafted by local artisans with disabilities, the other promoted a few workshops ranging from $5-20. These workshops advertised making your own handmade paper, seed jewellery or hand-bound journals.
Once you walk down the alley and are greeted by Boo, the large woven, wooden elephant, you will see many handcrafted items, ranging from clothing and jewellery to toys and games. Not only does it feel like you’ve escaped the city of Siem Reap for a little while but you can find beautiful and simple gifts available such as drinking straws, handbags and even some food, all with a unique artistic touch to them. At first glance, it feels like walking through most marketplaces until you take a moment to learn more about the story behind the business and its employees.
A Paper Making Workshop at Genevieve’s Fair Trade Village
Where does GFTV come from?
GFTV was opened up in 2015 following the success of Genevieve’s Restaurant that has been running since 2012. The restaurant started off as a business venture to help a friend in need of a job and grew into a means of supporting the community, providing for the local schools and community centres as well as creating new opportunities for staff members, who each get a 10% share of the restaurant’s profits.
This ethical mentality sparked GFTV, a community-based project that offers fair trade products created by artisans with disabilities or by organisations that provide opportunities for locals to learn crafts as a way of creating a sustainable livelihood. Fairtrade means that artisans can set their own prices for their crafts and receive 65% of the profits while the rest goes into keeping GFTV running.
After learning all of the benefits that come to those working for GFTV, I was itching to help out in some way and decided to attend a workshop. I was enticed by the idea of creating my own journal or even some handmade paper but as the first activity took place over two days, I stuck to the latter to ensure I could attend a workshop on my last day in Siem Reap. Arriving at 1 pm I was greeted by Rick, the manager of GFTV and Naret who would be running the paper making workshop.
As Naret prepared everything we would need, I spoke to Rick. He told me of how he came to be a part of the project and stressed that even though GFTV take donations and help with the community, they do not class themselves as a charity. They are, in fact, a social enterprise, focused on helping the locals to develop a sustainable livelihood and generate a continual income that may bring them above the poverty line.
A great example of this is how Naret who is registered as a trustee/partner of GFTV, is on the path to take over Rick’s role whenever he may step down. As with most people living with disabilities in Cambodia, Naret’s life started tough but through her own perseverance, she now fulfils her dream of sewing and loves to teach people how to craft.
Time to get crafting!
Once Naret was ready, I made my way over to the workshop where there was a big bowl of water and a table of instruments and random items. She asked me what colours I would like my paper to be as we would be using different items to create them. I stuck with what I could see on the table: brown paper and coffee, ripped up white paper tickets and a purple yam.
To begin with, Naret showed me that you only need a few items to create recycled paper. The first thing was a blender, filled partly with white paper that had been left to soak and the rest was just plain water. We both had a go at blending these into a greyish mush before pouring it into a much bigger bowl of fresh water. Once there was about a pint full of mush floating around in the bowl, the next stage was getting it set.
Beside the large bowl was a crafted mesh sheet along with an A4 sized wooden frame. Holding the frame tightly to the mesh, you must dip it in from the side and then scoop the mush into the frame, allowing it to drain on the mesh and getting rid of as much water as possible.
The next step was to place the mesh down, carefully remove the frame and then place a dry and clean(ish) rag over the soft residue being sure to avoid any air bubbles. I proceeded to peel off the cloth with the wet paper clinging on and repeated the process to make a few more white sheets while Naret began to cut up one of the yams. This time around, the paper came out greyish but with the darker, bolder purple of the vegetable sprinkled all over.
The final few sheets were going to be brown so we replaced the leftover grey liquid to allow for a blend of coffee, brown paper and turmeric. Once we’d got 3 more sheets of paper ready to dry, Naret set a large tile on top to help press them and quicken the drying process. This was so that they would be ready to be dropped off at my hotel the next day, although due to the early time that I had to leave, I chose to collect them myself.
Reflecting on a creative afternoon
It was amazing to learn that actually being able to recycle paper and create it myself was such an easy thing to do. What was even more impressive was that it immediately sparked ideas in my mind of creating unique colours and even incorporating different fruit flavours to create scented paper. This newly ignited spark of imagination was proof of what GFTV are trying to do; offer tools and workshops to give people the potential to create something unique to them, and even to spread their newfound knowledge to others.
As Rick told me, GFTV is not a charity but a business! So the benefits of simply visiting the shop while in Siem Reap and spending your tourist dollars on a product can contribute to a great cause. Better still, the workshops are very cost-effective activities that can be done with both children and adults and offer a craft that can be taken home.
Though the actual process of creating the paper took less than an hour, the workshop and shop, as well as the whole project, gave me a real insight into the work ethic of Naret and other artisans who have fought to destroy misconceptions about their disabilities and to prove that a label should never hold you back.