Think about young men working with wood in Cambodia and you’d be excused for imagining a crew hidden away in a forest armed with chainsaws and chopping down top-grade timber.
But in a country with abundant natural resources and expanding urban centres, Kénory You saw an opportunity to use wood for good.
During trips to her home country in the 2000s, the French-Cambodian businesswoman saw a poor education system and a dearth of employment opportunities – along with almost no domestic supply of fine furniture or craftspeople capable of making it for the country’s many restaurants and hotels. In an effort to fill these gaps, and inspired by the Kingdom’s lack of vocational training, she decided to open a woodworking school.
L’Ecole du Bois, or the School of Wood, opened in 2008 with funding from a collection of sponsors and donors. The first class graduated two years later, and every year since the school has taken in 18 disadvantaged students from the provinces to pass on the practical skills necessary to produce high-end custom furniture and cabinetry.
“Most Cambodians cannot afford to think of their future. They just think about how they can feed themselves on a daily basis,” said You. “We want students to build a future for themselves and their families by giving them the skills they need.”
Cambodia has watched its forests disappear at a faster rate than any other country in the world over the past decade, mostly to meet Chinese demand for luxury timber. However, there is also a growing domestic demand for fine furniture and woodwork thanks to an expanding upper-middle class and a building boom.
“The best sustainable solution to supplying this demand is to train Cambodians in fine woodworking skills as a resource for the future,” says You. “With their newfound skills, they can find employment and can earn enough money to provide for their children’s education.”
Suon Vuthy, 25, graduated from the school, located in a quiet village in Kampong Speu province, earlier this year. With his degree in hand, he quickly got a job working for a local French-owned woodwork company.
“Carpentry will be necessary everywhere and the demand for such skills will be high in a developing country like Cambodia,” said Vuthy, who started on a base salary of $200 a month. “In the future I plan to have my own workshop.”
The school’s two full-time teachers – both graduates of the school who have received teacher training from volunteers in Canada and France – also work to forge connections between its students and their peers at architecture and design universities in Phnom Penh.
“Connecting our young people with those from the city gives them the feeling that everyone can gain a skill,” You said. “And those skills can truly give birth to not just a wonderful career but a belief in a better future.”