Young People Save For The Future

Saving for Change in Cambodia helps young entrepreneurs save, and build a better life

It might seem like an unlikely place to open a business. First, there’s the name: Kouk Sangkerch, which means “Lice Hill,” in Khmer. The second challenge: It’s in an active land mine clearing operation. Men in protective suits are searching, carefully digging, and finding, mines left over from conflicts in the last century. One of them says the previous week they uncovered two metric tons (more than four thousand pounds) of unexploded ordinance, as it’s called. And in the previous month, a vehicle was destroyed in an explosion.

But people live here, including Plen Soben, with her husband and two-year-old daughter. She’s opened a store selling groceries, and noodle soup, hot and ready to eat at a table at the side of the road. It’s just a few yards from the skull and crossbones signs warning people about the mines in the area.

The 25-year-old businesswoman bold enough to start a business here says she is a member of a Saving for Change group that offered special business training for young entrepreneurs. In it she learned how to attract customers, of which there are many in Kouk Sangkerch, and how to price goods so she can move a lot of her inventory and make some money, even if the profit margins are narrow.

And she learned the importance of saving. “I always just spent money,” she says, standing in front of her store. “Now, it’s in the box,” referring to the locked cash box each Saving for Change group uses to hold its deposits.

Alternatives for youth

Oxfam’s partner, the Youth Council of Cambodia (YCC), is helping young people organize Saving for Change groups, and providing training for aspiring entrepreneurs to help them learn to start and run successful businesses. The SFC group members can be as young as 12, who are saving for school and for future business ventures when they graduate. It’s a way to help young people save money each week, sometimes just 50 cents, or as much as a few dollars, says Rom Teut, who works at YCC.

He says many young people drop out of high school and struggle to build a future. “We can help young people create jobs, small businesses, and build a future, instead of just selling their labor.” Teut says CYY has helped start 50 groups, and hopes to have 25 new ones forming this year. Each group has about 15 members.

Plen Soben joined a group and saved some money, combined it with a loan, and started her store. She decided to start another Saving for Change group in her community just for young people, so now she is a member of two groups and saves about five dollars a week at each one. She says that money management skills, access to capital at only three percent interest, and a safe place to save money are all practical reasons for young people to join a group. “When youth meet, they make friends and build solidarity,” she says, noting some of the other benefits for group membership. “They learn from each other, and are less likely to become gangsters or drug addicts, or just spend all their money without saving anything.”  

  • Signs warn of land mine danger in Kouk Sangkerch village, a deadly legacy of 20th century conflicts. Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

    Signs warn of land mine danger in Kouk Sangkerch village, a deadly legacy of 20th century conflicts. Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

  • This high school in Samrong, Oddar Meanchey, has built an open-air classroom to meet the demand for space.

    This high school in Samrong, Oddar Meanchey (northwestern part of Cambodia), has built an open-air classroom to meet the need for space. Cambodia continues to recover from war and genocide in the 20th century. Young people largely attend and finish primary school, but attendance falls off drastically in secondary school years and the country is struggling to improve graduation rates. With nearly half of Cambodia’s population younger than 25 years old, young people need alternatives to low-wage labor, migration, or gang activity. Entrepreneurial training, and basic financial literacy made possible by Oxfam partner Youth Council of Cambodia are designed to help young people save money and create their own options as they become adults. Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

  • Mab Oeuy, 15, has been a member of a Saving for Change group for two years. He saved up some money, and borrowed enough from his group to buy a bicycle

    Mab Oeuy, 15, has been a member of a Saving for Change group for two years. He saved up some money, and borrowed enough from his group to buy a bicycle he rides to school. He makes money working in rice fields, and tapping trees in the forest for resin. Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

  • San Aemm, 21, aspires to become a teacher, and is saving money in her Saving for Change group in Oddar Meanchey province to pay for university.

    San Aemm, 21, aspires to become a teacher, and is saving money in her Saving for Change group in Oddar Meanchey province to pay for university. She says the money she and other group members are saving “will help reduce the amount of money our parents need to give us when we are studying.” Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

  • Plen Soben, 25, with her two-year-old daughter, runs a small store and restaurant in a village called Kouk Sangkerch

    Plen Soben, 25, with her two-year-old daughter, runs a small store and restaurant in a village called Kouk Sangkerch. She is a member of two Saving for Change groups, one of which she started herself especially for young people in her village. Soben has two goals: The first is to expand her store, and start selling clothing as well as groceries and prepared food. The second is to acquire a motorbike. “I tell young people to join an SFC group, the interest rate is low so it’s easy to pay back a loan,” she says. “They will learn to manage money, reduce their expenses, and learn to save more. And if a lot of people here keep saving, it will reduce poverty.” Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

  • Salout Louy, 19, is a member of a Saving for Change group with more than 20 members.

    Salout Louy, 19, and engaged to be married, was a member of a Saving for Change group with more than 20 members. Several young people approached her and asked to join the group, so she decided to form a new group with fewer people. She participated in a business training program funded by Oxfam. “After training it inspired me to start a business selling cosmetics,” she says. “In this village there’s no cosmetics shop, so there’s a good opportunity.” She says the training helped her learn to study the locations available, assess the competition, and how to attract customers. “I don’t have enough money to do it yet,” she says but predicts that “In five years I will have that business running.” Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

  • Da Sophea, 18, is a member of a Saving for Change group, and after she attended a business training program she decided to expand her road-side food and drink stand

    Da Sophea, 18, is a member of a Saving for Change group, and after she attended a business training program she decided to expand her road-side food and drink stand, which she runs at a table in front of her parent’s house. Her business plan involves building a proper store, and she has borrowed the money to buy the lumber in this photograph. She has a good location: Her parents live right on route 68, the main road between Samrong and Siem Reap. She says that joining a Saving for Change group “taught me how to manage money, and I did the entrepreneurship training… that’s when things started to change.” She says she’s proud of the business she is building.  “I want to have a career, not just depend on my parents,” she says. “So I need a plan to be independent and build my own business.” Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

  • With a business plan, profits from rice farming, and a loan from his Saving for Change group, he bought some wood and built a store where he and his wife Hien Youb, 30, sell beer and other drinks, gasoline for clients on motorbikes, and all manner of groceries.

    Vorn Piseth, 32, says “I did not have a cent in my pocket” when he joined a Saving for Change group, and took a business training class. He saved his money, and approached his mother in law to ask if he could open a store on her land, right at the side of a busy road to the Thailand border. With a business plan, profits from rice farming, and a loan from his Saving for Change group, he bought some wood and built a store where he and his wife Hien Youb, 30, sell beer and other drinks, gasoline for clients on motorbikes, and all manner of groceries. On most days he even has fresh catfish available, thrashing around in a shallow bowl of water. The store brings in about $125 per day, and he says he intends to invest his profits into expanding the store. Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America