Mobile coffee carts are a Phnom Penh trend, but this month one makes its debut for a cause: employing former dumpsite pickers and educating people on the effects of their rubbish. Writer Joanna Mayhew gets the dirt from Aimee Cheung, Director of Development at NGO Aziza’s Place, who is tackling the heaping problem. Photography by Charles Fox.

Tell me about your organisation.
Aziza’s Place is an educational learning centre for underprivileged children. We provide them with education and three meals a day. We provide classes in English, computing, art, maths, karate, Khmer, and support [them] to go to school. We also provide outreach to their families.

How did you get involved?
I used to be a management consultant in London. I wanted a change and to feel a bit more alive. In the corporate environment, you feel so far removed from things that were happening not very far away. And then you come here and you’re much closer, you see it first-hand. Because of that you feel more empowered to do something. I’ve always done well in small companies because you’re able to make a larger impact. That’s what drew me to Aziza’s Place. The impact is proportionally larger.

Who are your clients?
Over half of the [children’s families] work at the Boeung Choeung Ek dumpsite, near The Killing Fields. It’s basically all of the city’s trash. There are mountains of it—two to three stories high. The environment is toxic. The fumes are really bad for your health. They step on things at risk of giving them disease; there are dirty syringes. It’s a terrible environment for anyone to work in, let alone children. They collect recyclable items, like plastic bottles, aluminum cans, copper, paper, and sell it on to a recyclable goods buyer, [who] sells it on to Vietnam. They typically earn up to $5 a day. It’s very much a day-to-day living existence.

What is the new project?
While we’re supporting the children at Aziza’s Place, their family circumstances are largely unchanged. So the aim of the social business is to create employment initially for the families. The idea is a mobile coffee cart business; we’re proposing to sell coffee from a tuk tuk and offer customers a discount (500 riel) when they give in an empty plastic bottle or aluminum drink can. We will collect [recyclables] like the mums used to, and the money they get in return will be their salary bonus. [We’re starting at] the end of October, [selling] iced coffee, lime green tea, lime ginger tea, and banana flower noodle salads.

What’s the message behind it?
The idea is to make [customers] realise their garbage does have value, and when they throw [it] away and mix it with organic garbage it does have an impact on the community. [In the West], recycling is for the environment because we’re conscious of the damage it’s doing, whereas recycling here is purely financial. We’re trying to bring those thoughts together and say, yes, it brings an income, but there’s also another benefit of being mindful about the rubbish you generate.

I hate that people perceive [those] who work on the dumpsite as negative members of society. I’m hoping this will provide them with an equal chance to show that they’re not, they just haven’t had the same opportunities.

What makes it unique?
Food and beverage will always be competitive, so we’ve made a concerted effort to be more creative. We’re going to be selling it from a solar-powered tuk tuk. We have no carbon emissions and no carbon footprint. We’ll be using paper-based products where we can, paper cups and paper boxes. We’re using local Cambodian coffee. It’s all part of our messaging of being environmentally friendly and thinking more about our actions.

What financial difference will be made?
[The mothers] could easily double their income. We want to increase the comfort in their life. In their previous job they worked every day, for as long as they could. We’ll be open six days a week, and the seventh day allows them time with their family [to] rest and recuperate. I’d love to create a micro-franchising business where we allow the mums to be their own boss. Any money we make we’ll plough back into our community outreach program.

Why are coffee carts so popular?
Mobile coffee is appealing to businesses because it’s scalable. The risks are lower, you don’t have to pay rent and buy property. Also, now there’s a huge younger generation who are constantly on the move. They’re on their motorbikes and they need stuff on the go. Take-away food and drinks are very much in demand.

Why is social business important in Cambodia?
This is a great place for social businesses because many people have a social conscience [and] tourism is becoming more socially conscientious. I can see this huge gap in social classes, and it’s only widening. Because of the gap, there’s this kind of middle area where social businesses sit, which bridge the gap between the classes. I’m hoping this is what the coffee cart will do. It gives our mothers a voice to speak out to the public about their experiences, even giving advice of when you put the rubbish outside, it’s great if you can split [recyclables] into a different bag.

What is your hope for it?
There will always be plastic being generated. I’m not going to save Cambodia from this. I’m not going to save the planet with this. This is me playing my part to do what I can and using what’s around me, leveraging the community’s experience. I’d love to be able to create jobs in a kinder environment for them. There are loads of social businesses here, but I think the concept is very unique. I’m hoping it’ll be interesting for people to support on a regular basis. Everyone needs coffee and noodles.