Phnom Penh’s popular co-working space and social incubator Impact Hub will be working with five Cambodian teams over the next year to launch some unique social enterprises. Words by Erin Hale, photography by Enric Català.

While working to teach rural students about scholarships several years ago, Kagnarith Chea encountered a surprising problem – students in the provinces knew about the scholarships already, they weren’t applying form them because they still lagged in their English.

Most scholarships required a score of 550 on the widely used TOEFL English exam, but rural students could only hit 350. The reason Chea found was that while students were keen to learn more, their teachers were not always up to the task.

“[Students] have the money to pay [for classes] and there’s a teacher, but the problem is the teacher is not well trained to be able to teach them higher levels of content,” says Chea. “So they tend to repeat the cycle. When they finish elementary they come back and start again because the teacher cannot go up to intermediate. That has been the question on my mind, ‘How do I solve that problem’?”

Working with partner Sovan Srun, the pair devised a programme to give rural students access to better teaching materials: EDEMY, which stands for English Academy, combines tablet learning with in-class teaching from pre-written lesson plans. The project received assistance from the Indochina Starfish Association but scaling up remained an obstacle.

Enter Impact Hub Phnom Penh. The co-working space with a social edge has been popular with foreigners and NGOs since it opened in 2015. Changing tack last year, Impact Hub is spending more of its resources targeting young and savvy Cambodians with its Cellcard ChangeMakers leadership initiative and now Cambodia’s first social enterprise incubator, EPIC Cambodia.

EDEMY was one of 49 teams to win a slot in the nine month-long EPIC incubation programme, which aims to provide social entrepreneurs with the time, funding, workspace and access to regional consultants to turn their ideas into viable business models. With funding from USAID’s Development Innovations program, EPIC also offers team members stipends to quit their full-time jobs and focus on their startup.

“We thought it was quite an important programme because what we found were a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs have got an idea but because they have to work full-time they aren’t really able to accelerate it,” says Laura Smitheman, cofounder and programmes and innovation director at Impact Hub Phnom Penh.

Phase one of EPIC Cambodia saw a public call for entries, out of which 11 teams were chosen for a three-month programme. The five outstanding teams were selected on a special pitch day for a further nine-month incubation scheme that began in January.

Besides EDEMY, the four other winning teams include Rat Hunter, to help farmers catch grain-eating rats; EcoFresh Box, which transports produce and extends its shelf-life; E-House, an app to pair young women, such as garment workers, with better housing and landlords; and the Food Processing Incubator to improve the food safety of edible products made by small producers and home business.

With the help of EPIC, teammates Chea and Srun are now working full-time on growing EDEMY. In the next few months, they hope to expand lesson packs to include intermediate, beginner and advanced with the help of EPIC.

Some projects are still in the “rough draft” phase, but Food Processing Incubator – yet to be rebranded FPI – was another initiative that began prior to EPIC at the Institute of Technology Cambodia, and will use the programme to expand its reach.

FPI is focusing on food safety and ways to turn raw materials into value-added products. The first attempt was with soybeans and the team developed ways to safely turn raw soybeans into soy milk, soy yoghurt and soy cookies.

“With EPIC we are trying to build our business model, so now we are doing the brainstorming and [planning],” says Hor Sivmey. While the team is focusing on soy for now, they have longer term goals. “Our ambition is to create a food-processing incubator centre, independent centre to work on food technology, development, food safety, training, systems.”

At the end of the nine months, Impact Hub will have hatched five interesting social enterprises at varying stages of completion. However, to only focus on the end results of the EPIC programme  would be missing the point, claim organisers.

The long-term aim is to equip each teammate with skills and training they can use for other projects later, whether or not they directly relate to EPIC Cambodia, says Incubator manager Maelle Barbancon.

“The goal of EPIC is developing [the teams] as an entrepreneurs,” says Barbancon. “Even if the idea doesn’t work, it’s a long-term thing. Maybe in five years they will succeed because they developed skills in business and they can do something in their field.”

EPIC won’t mark the end of Impact Hub’s incubator ambitions, either. Organisers are already in the middle of planning ways to replicate its forecast success with new partners and funding.

Stay tuned for more exciting entrepreneurial adventures.