As if creating eco-friendly coal was not enough, the CEO of Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise has made it his mission to give young artists a unique platform to send out social messages. Words by Marissa Carruthers. Photography by Anna Clare Spelman.

A rowdy round of applause erupts from the crowd of 13 young artists as beaming student El Huyno makes his way through a barrage of cheers and pats on the back. He stands in front of the crowd and smiles as he accepts the top prize – a supply of art equipment, top-of-the-range digital camera and his winning sketch printed on 4,000 Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise (SGFE) coal bags.

Carlo Figa Talamanca, CEO of SGFE, which has been producing environmentally friendly char-briquettes from rice husks, coconut shells and recycled charcoal in Cambodia since 2008, had the brainwave late last year. As he stood staring at a pile of coal sacks stacked high in the corner of the factory that sits on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, he realised that while one side is covered with the company logo, product information, instructions and contact details, the other remains plain white – a blank canvas waiting to be filled.

“I wanted to use the bags as an innovative communication channel to deliver messages and raise awareness about socially relevant topics,” the Italian expat says. “As a matter of fact, SGFE’s bags reach the heart of the Cambodian population, and can be found in households, markets, corner shops, restaurants and street food vendors, where SGFE’s char-briquettes are used.”

The lifespan of the bags extends way beyond being emptied, as the bags are used as storage or by waste-pickers in the city and on the dumpsites. It’s estimated they remain in circulation for between six months and a year, capturing a huge audience.

“It seemed the most fitting to get young Cambodians involved,” adds Figa Talamanca. “And who better to illustrate these messages than young art students while also giving them a platform to showcase their work.”

The debut competition challenged second year fine art students from the Royal University of Phnom Penh to come up with an illustration that tackled the issue of women’s empowerment. Of the 24 entrants, 13 finalists were selected and a panel made up of judges from organisations including AsiaLIFE, Phnom Penh Post, SGFE, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and LyLy Company whittled down the winners.

“Women have the same rights to politics, activities and social issues in the world as men,” Huyno says, outlining his winning creation, which carries a simple but effective message by depicting a woman shaking hands with the earth. “The world here is showing value and worth to the woman, and that is important. This has been a great experience for me, and I am excited and proud to see my work on the bags.”

This month, the bags emblazoned with the winning picture will hit the streets of Phnom Penh, with a total of 4,000 being printed in the coming weeks. Currently, SGFE sells more than 1,500 bags containing 30kg of char-briquettes every month.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to not only get a powerful social message out to a cross-section of society, but also for young local artists to show off their wonderful talents,” Figa Talamanca says, adding he plans to hold a new competition every three to four months within schools and colleges, each featuring a different environmental or social message.

To secure an international audience for the budding students, the 13 short-listed pieces of work can be seen as a collective exhibition, hanging on the walls of Artillery on Street 240-and-a-half this month. Originals and prints are for sale.