On a quiet weekday in Siem Reap, the staff of SPOONS cafe were busy wiping down every possible surface from the bamboo poles to the bar counter. No table was forgotten.
The staff members, recent high school graduates from rural Cambodia, wore shirts neatly tucked in, pants without wrinkles and smiles on their faces to greet guests. They were ready to practice skills they had spent the previous months learning: politely unfolding napkins, serving bread (“do not forget the butter”) and other small but crucial steps for smooth and pleasant restaurant service.
SPOONS Cafe is a social enterprise launched in 2016 to support the NGO now known as SPOONS Cambodia, which trains youth in hospitality while teaching English and other life skills.
Even with more than a decade of success, SPOONS Cambodia and its associated cafe almost shut down during Covid-19, when the pandemic eviscerated NGOs and social enterprises across Cambodia.
Following the initiative’s all-expenses paid, year-long training, 100% of the youth find jobs in hospitality, SPOONS Cambodia director Mao Sophany said.
“After one year, they can stand and say hello to expats and foreigners, even though in the beginning they don’t know how to say ‘Hi,'” she said. “Now they are confident to keep smiling.”
Originally a component of NGO EGBOK (Everything’s Gonna Be OK), SPOONS Cafe was established to help fund EGBOK’s work teaching rural youth hospitality industry skills and to provide a hands-on training ground for students.
Like many international NGOs in Cambodia, EGBOK was reliant since its inception in 2009 on foreign leadership and a board whose members primarily lived outside Cambodia. More than 70% of NGOs with foreign registration or a foreign founder employed foreign staff, double the likelihood of locally run NGOs, according to a 2012 NGO census by the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia.
While SPOONS had planned to transition to Cambodian leadership, the pressure of the pandemic accelerated the process, leading EGBOK to rebrand in late 2020 as a Cambodian-registered NGO SPOONS Cafe and revamp its leadership as locally based and Cambodian-led, including the transfer of all assets to Cambodian control.
Many of the current and former leadership believe the transition of SPOONS highlights the ability of motivated Cambodians to move into leadership positions within NGOs and shape the direction of their organisations.
“Before, everything relied on our board and executive director,” Sophany said. “We were just implementers, following the instructions. But now, we lead by ourselves as a Cambodian team.”
Ben Justus, a California native with a background in hospitality, started EGBOK to help break the cycle of poverty in the Kingdom by providing a young, uneducated population with the skills to thrive in a growing tourism industry where many manager roles were filled with foreigners.
“It seemed like a perfect recipe to train an underserved population and grow them into hospitality leaders,” Justus said.
The organisation had limited resources and initially depended on foreign volunteers. Much of the funding came from overseas donors, namely hospitality chains, he added.
“We became reliant on that,” Justus said. “I think we weren’t being as creative as we could have been within Cambodia.”
In part to ensure the organisation could maintain its foreign donor connections, EGBOK hired non-Cambodian executive directors who were well-versed in fundraising outside the country, he explained.
“Reflecting back on it, we should have made this transition earlier,” Justus said. “I think it’s more sustainable long-term.”
Decades of instability and a lack of educational and professional opportunities meant many Cambodians lacked the experience and capacity to lead local organisations in the post-UNTAC era. Strict auditing, English-language requirements for grant writing and a donor base centred in the West likely lead nonprofit boards to feel more comfortable with a foreigner in charge, said Osman Khawaja, formerly an EGBOK board member.
With a generation of Cambodians growing up with more access to education and work experience after three decades of widespread NGO presence, many Cambodians are poised to assume leadership roles in NGOs.
EGBOK always planned to shift the leadership to Cambodians. But when the pandemic hit, cutting off tourism to Cambodia, the EGBOK leadership at the time believed the NGO was unable to sustain itself long enough to reach that point, Khawaja said.
Khawaja believed that for EGBOK’s then-director Laurie Parris, “the natural response was, ‘Okay, we will not survive, it’s a huge overhead because of the restaurant and there’s no business anymore,'” he said. “And if tourism industries are collapsing, will we have a need for students in a couple years?”
When international travel shut down in 2020, EGBOK was training 50 students with a staff of more than 30, Parris said. Soon after, a lack of customers drained the NGO’s funds and the cafe shut down.
“We needed to find jobs for 50 students at a time when most of the national and international hotels were closing,” she said. “It was a real challenge to find work for those students and that was our commitment to them.”
She said she offered a range of options to the board, including stopping NGO operations once the current cohort graduated. The board ultimately voted to close EGBOK.
When the news reached then-deputy director Sophany and the employees, the Cambodian staff pushed back, arguing they should be allowed to take control to try to keep EGBOK running.
“We think that we can try to do something else rather than stop our programme because we thought that our young generation really needs our help,” Sophany said. “And then I asked myself, ‘How can I do it?'”
Sophany, 34, had a background in sociology and, after seven years with EGBOK, had been earmarked as the eventual director. Even so, whenever past openings arose, she hadn’t felt ready to jump into the top leadership position, believing she lacked sufficient experience. But Sophany realised if she didn’t accept the challenge there would be no way to maintain the organisation’s mission.
The board wanted to ensure the Cambodian staff were fully aware of the financial difficulties and commitment required to save EGBOK, according to Regan Taikitsadaporn, former board chairman.
Like other board members, he said he was consumed with his day job as a Marriott International executive, preoccupied with navigating the company through the pandemic. EGBOK needed a jump start.
“The pandemic helped us realise that we needed to have a stronger leadership presence in Cambodia and a stronger donor base in Cambodia,” Taikitsadaporn said. “Unless we also had a renewed level of local leadership at the board level, it would be very challenging for us to continue.”
The EGBOK board asked Sophany and the Cambodian staff to draft a proposal for running the organisation and to compile a prospective board. Board members recall being impressed with the presentation, noting how the locally based board Sophany and her team assembled in mere weeks, comprising Cambodians and foreigners, could help guide Sophany in her new role. They agreed to transfer all assets to the Cambodian team.
“Why not let the local team tap into their passion and drive, they have this commitment, and see what they can come up with,” Khawaja said. “I was really happy to see that everyone was committed, and everyone knew what it would take.”
EGBOK, which was registered in the US, transitioned to locally registered SPOONS Cambodia during Siem Reap’s city-wide road reconstruction, sporadic Covid-19 lockdowns, ongoing travel restrictions and dwindling organisational finances.
The change in name did not signal a change in spirit. Sophany and her remaining staffers — the operations had to be significantly downsized — kept a whiteboard in their office reading “EGBOK is alive,” which they looked at daily for inspiration, even though they were working more than ever before with pay cuts up to 60%.
Having witnessed domestic violence growing up, Sophany stuck with SPOONS because she wanted all young people, especially women, to have options for leading an independent, educated life and not stay trapped in poverty and harmful situations.
In order to succeed, she knew SPOONS needed funding to invest in its students for bicycles, accommodation and meals.
“If you want to provide education to the poor, you have to think about how they are going to survive each day during their education,” Sophany said.
But covering the costs of training required more than $3,000 per student. Sophany took on the unfamiliar role of fundraising within Cambodia, building a domestic network using local and national development funds and grants to sustain the NGO and cafe and convincing previous donors to trust the organisation’s new direction.
SPOONS Cambodia is now working with a new 10 student cohort for its one year training and internship programme, launched in November, along with a four month programme to train 14 students in coffee and drink-making.
One student in the year-long programme Cheng Monghol, a recent high school graduate from the Battambang countryside, said he hopes to use the education to one day open a restaurant of his own. Although he had rarely met westerners before moving to Siem Reap, he now has a strong grasp of English.
“I want to have skills and get a good job,” he said.
Sophany’s staff said they shared a commitment to provide the best support for students like Monghol. As alumni of the programme, they understood the nervous faces of the latest year-long cohort of ten students, their uncertainty in balancing trays of glasses and deploying their new English words during role-play lessons.
“We used to be students here before so we know clearly when they arrive at the first time what they fear,” Rith Teav said. “I knew nothing about hospitality.”
After several years in the hotel industry, the 27-year-old returned to SPOONS to teach housekeeping and food and beverage preparation. In the evenings, she continued to take business and management university classes.
“SPOONS and EGBOK made me have skills,” she said. “And let me have the opportunity to study at the university – what I dreamed of before. And now my dream has come true.”