Ms. Chomreoun Ouen’s wooden house stands on a large plot of land in Pursat province, northwest of Phnom Penh. The front yard, patched with grass, has crop circle patterns from the toilet rings that were drying under the heat of the sun. Just hours before, Ms. Ouen’s husband transported the finished toilet parts to customers in the area, leaving behind an empty space for the next set of rings to receive the sun.
It’s commonly assumed that men are the labourers and women the administrators in a construction business. Not at Ms. Ouen’s house. She does not shy away from the manual labour and has been making toilet rings for nearly 30 years. Self-taught and determined, she replicated her father’s business at a young age. Today, she and a team of exclusively women construction workers make nearly 20 cement toilet rings per day – enough for three to five households per day to purchase a toilet.
However, her business didn’t start as an instant success. As the oldest sister of five daughters, Mrs. Chomroeun shouldered the responsibility of looking after her siblings and aging father since she was a teenager. At 17, she moved to a neighbouring village with her new husband and followed in her father’s footsteps by starting a small, rural construction business. She started by teaching herself to make rainwater jars, having observed her father and his workers make them for years. “At first my jars were misshapen but still usable,” said Ms. Ouen. “But now they’re better quality than every other business in the province so I demand a higher price for them.”
When she started, Ms. Ouen was selling only a few jars per month, barely making enough to cover her household expenses. She was forced to turn to other sources of income to make ends meet and decided to invest in a farm. Her farm failed leaving her with huge debts.
In 2011, WaterSHED knocked on her door. It was the infancy of our market building activities and we were looking for small construction businesses to partner with, businesses that can easily add toilets to their original offerings.
Ms. Oeun was apprehensive to work with us. She was fearful of enduring another failure and accruing more debt. Her neighbours were fearful WaterSHED’s opportunity was a scam. Lastly, she didn’t believe there was any demand for toilets in such a remote area.
But Ms. Oeun had little to lose so she purchased one toilet mould on credit to test WaterSHED’s theory that she could profit from the sale of toilets.
Back then Ms. Ouen was so broke, she didn’t even have the money to buy the rubble required to make toilet rings. She would go scavenging around her neighbourhood for large rocks that she would chisel by hand to make rubble. She did this every day, late into the night, so there was rubble available the next day to make toilet rings.
Her sales began to grow, not only for toilets but also jars, pillars, and all other products she has since started to offer. With WaterSHED’s help, Ms. Ouen not only learned to make toilet rings but learned to operate her business more efficiently, market her product better, and reach a new customer base. Today she is debt free pay and sells an array of home construction products including rainwater jars, pillars, large sewage rings and, of course, toilet sets.
As the business grew, it not only helped her family survive but helped women in her community. Of the seven workers Ms. Ouen employs, only two are men, relegated to making deliveries. The five other workers are women who help her make toilets and other cement products. “One of my neighbours is a widow. She was going to leave the province to find work,” explains Ms. Ouen. “By working with me she doesn’t have to leave her home or leave her young children behind with grandparents.” Since then, she has intentionally hired the women from her community to help her make toilets, jars, and other products – each one designated to making a single part of the product. One is the cement mixer, another makes the lid, and another the ring – an assembly line that has made it possible for her to make dozens of products in a single day. “We don’t have to always rely on men. Women can do the job.”