Why creativity is Cambodia's best hope of recovering from the pandemic
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
When I was asked to write a guest article for the Khmer Times it was obvious what the subject should be - Covid-19 and creativity. During recent visits to the Cambodian provinces of Ratanakiri and Siem Reap, I had seen the devastation the pandemic had wreaked on those communities, which rely so much on foreign tourism. At the same time I could already see signs of creativity in the way people were responding, such as Sokha the tour guide who was already thinking about turning his cashew farming sideline into a tourist attraction for the future. It was obvious that creativity was going to be crucial if the country was to recover from the virus, and I had already seen plentiful evidence of this resourcefulness when working at Cambodia's top marketing agency or in some of the country's best NGOs. I began to collect examples of creativity and wrote my piece - the below is an expanded version, and a fitting way to kick off this blog on creativity.
(Photo above is of Social Distance Football, the new form of football I created with ISF in response to the pandemic). The impact of Covid-19 has been devastating economically, even if Cambodia has experienced few cases of the virus. The country's two biggest industries, tourism and textiles, have been so harmed by the recession that the World Bank warns 1.75 million jobs are endangered, an enormous number in a nation of 15 million. In fact, the World Bank names the pandemic “the greatest threat to Cambodia’s development in its 30 years of modern history”. The many people sharing their joy at having Angkor Wat to themselves on Instagram don't capture the suffering of thousands dependent on temple tourism, which is down by 94%. Outside one temple in Siem Reap I met a man trying to sell foreign-language guidebooks, who admitted he hadn't even seen a foreign visitor all day long. He asked miserably, “what should I do?”
That’s the big question and there are no easy answers or instant solutions, but it is clear that Cambodian businesses are going to need to get creative to survive. Fortunately, creativity is one natural resource Cambodia has in abundance. It’s there in the ingenious repairs that allow motorbikes to survive long beyond their natural lifespan, or the DIY modifications you see in the unlikeliest places, like the snorkel witnessed taped to a motorbike’s air-intake so it could cross flooded rivers.
I've seen creativity everywhere since I arrived in Cambodia. It was there in the way the Child Protection Unit used and adapted existing Microsoft technology to find missing children and apprehend predators. It is certainly everywhere in the vibrant arts curriculum developed by Phare Ponleu Selpak and it is embodied in Liger Leadership Academy, an extraordinary school which encourages invention and a start-up mentality in young Cambodians. Liger students have won entrepreneurial competitions in Cambodia and internationally by designing Cambodia's first space satellite, creating digital currencies, launching successful sustainable tourism businesses, inventing solar-powered computer labs for public schools and more – all while high schoolers themselves.
In fact, smarter Cambodian businesses are already evolving to meet the challenges of the times. Tour operators are pivoting from serving foreigners towards serving locals, a change which may have been forced but is probably more sustainable in the long-term. Struggling restaurants have joined with delivery services, kicking off an e-commerce boom which could inspire and finance a new generation of Cambodian entrepreneurs. Other start-ups were directly born from the pandemic. Businessman David Ghani’s alcohol import business was hit hard by the first waves of the virus - “we had issues importing due to border closures and most of our customers closed down” – so he created consumer-facing drink delivery service Drinks On Wheels to fill the void left by shuttered bars. As Ghani told me when writing this article, “the business climate has changed forever, companies will need to adapt to survive”.
However, I knew from conversations with some businesses that many still harbour misconceptions about creativity which prevent them from fully adopting it. Some think it’s a luxury for hipster graphic designers or slick-talking marketing agencies (like the one hosting this blog). That's why it's important to get the message out that creativity actually lies deep in the foundations of every enterprise. Businesses and NGOs all begin as creative responses to questions like “how can I improve my life?”, “what am I really good at?”, "what can I do which nobody else does?" or “how do I make the world better?” While many might have forgotten this, now is the time to remember it.
Another misconception that makes people think creativity is not for them is that it’s only for “creative people” whose ideas arrive as “eureka” moments when a lightbulb appears over their heads. Actually, even though creative professionals don't often admit it, it emerges from analysis and deduction as often as inspiration. I can demonstrate the point with two personal examples. When I was working at TLC, a community development NGO, we created two campaigns against domestic violence. The initial idea for the first film did appear in a flash: seeing a child enter a home wearing an outsized motorbike helmet, I imagined a world where women and children wore helmets indoors to protect themselves. This idea - after development with the founder, film-makers and more - became the flagship film of the "End Violence Together" campaign, which went on to win the Shorty Social Good Award for Best Work in Developing Nations.
The second film emerged more methodically. We knew we needed to confront and challenge men rather than put the onus on women to solve the problem of violence. As a big fan of Kun Khmer, I understood a film of a powerful boxer fighting a defenceless woman would grab attention and dramatically illustrate the asymmetry of male-on-female violence. But it was my creative colleagues Hou Hemmunind and Chhun Bunchhai who added cultural resonance by interweaving Khmer Empire themes into the campaign, naming it "Be An Honourable Warrior" and helping recruit many of the local celebrities who supported the campaign for free. In fact, dozens of people worked to enhance both campaigns, from TLC directors to drivers. Creativity feeds on collaboration, and ideas can come from anyone, anywhere.
A final misconception hampering creativity is that it always has to be big and it always has to cost a lot of money. As Ghani says, “the opposite is true. Being creative is about finding the best way to use the money you have, or finding creative ways to make money”. At education and sports NGO, ISF Cambodia, we showed creativity’s power by inventing Social Distance Football, with rules based on table football to keep players separate and safe. This totally free idea caught on from Europe to India. By creatively adjusting its model and increasing staffing, Priyanka Chetry’s grocery start-up Grocerdel saw 165% income growth during COVID-19.
There are already significant moves towards encouraging more creativity nationwide. Impact Hub just announced an initiative promoting rural entrepreneurialism by taking its model to other provinces, while Pan Sorasak, Cambodia’s minister of commerce, has spoken supportively of e-commerce, a foundation on which creativity can be built.
Mengthong Long, a 19-year-old entrepreneur and former Liger student, told me this: "One of the things I notice is that many businesses are looking to reposition their business model to deliver their service online instead. While Covid-19 has caused a crisis that affects our economy and millions of citizens in Cambodia, I do see that this is also an opportunity to allow developing countries like us to be more competent and aware of what technology can do and help them to recover from Covid-19."
This was a welcome optimistic reading of the situation. Of course, none of the above is meant to minimise the suffering people are going through now or the scale of the challenges ahead. The pandemic is a disaster - but the only thing you can do with disasters is try and recover from them. It is true, after all, that crises can create opportunities and hard-working, talented individuals – like Rith the guidebook seller, with his charm and excellent English – are newly available to make entrepreneurs’ business dreams come true. The coming months and years will be an ordeal for many Cambodian businesses and families, but there is a chance that a more modern and more creative Cambodia could lie on the other side of it all.