During the year’s summer holiday, we had a wonderful opportunity to Cambodia and share experience with a social business entrepreneur, Michie Nishiguchi (a lady with yellow jacket)
The health center she previously worked for mostly relied on overseas donations to cover its operating expenses. With fee-for-capacity system, underprivileged patients would have to pay a base amount or pay back by helping with building maintenance. However, the enterprise never managed to become self-sustainable. And so, they started to look for alternative sources of income by opening a vegetable garden and a small farm. Nevertheless, the NGO did not succeed in balancing their operating expenses.
With 9 years of experience at a non-profit community health center, she decided to venture out into her own business. Working for a non-profit organization had provided her with necessary skills and network to set up her own company. However, her experience has offered her something even more special: two valuable concepts which she is testing out at her herbal tea business startup, Demeter.
As a Master degree of International Development, Michie came to understand that “development support can solve most of the major community needs”, but not all; as well as, “donation is the most unpredictable source of funding”. Frustrated with the failing business model, Michie realized there is another opportunity to help the local residents. She found out that the area surrounding the community center is naturally rich with local flowers and herbs. She then decided to invite her friend, herb blender from Phnom Penh, to visit the area.
She told me there were many wonderful herbs growing in the area and we could use them to make herbal tea.
With the help of her friend, Michie taught the health center staff how to pick and sun-dry the herbs. This was different from the idea of creating a vegetable garden or a farm in a way that they utilized existing local resources and the staff could handle their tasks during their free time. To make this business self-sufficient, she decided to make herbal tea manufacturing an independent business. This is how Demeter herbal tea came to life.
Eventually, to bring more volume and variety, Demeter has expanded to locations outside the health center. This also allowed Michie to bring additional income to other communities in need by collaborating with small farms in the area. Another point she noticed was that the health center model could also be applied to local schools which created “School Herbal Garden Program” with three main objectives: introducing sustainable gardening to local students, medicinal plants studies by connecting with local traditional herbal practitioners and providing schools with supplementary income.
Many schools have shown interest in improving school environment. However, they did not have the opportunity to start. Demeter helps to guide them through this process by formulating “School Herbal Garden Program”.
When the schools are ready, Demeter provides hands-on training in gathering and sun-drying herbs.
After a trial and error period, Demeter purchases dry herbs with a fair-trade price from schools. And the schools use the additional income for their operating expenses.
“School Herbal Garden Program” has gained a level of recognition from the local business and administration. Organizations in other provinces are expressing their interest in joining the program. Nevertheless, setting up a new business model does not come without obstacles. Michie has expressed her concern with the increasing requirement level of automation on the packaging process while Demeter does not have experience with setting up such system.
Regarding the company’s goals for the next three to five years, Michie remains optimistic and faithful that Demeter will start exporting the products overseas and increase its sales volume trifold. Currently, she is planning to open a tea shop in Phnom Penh and launch a school garden visit tour. Interested parties are encouraged to contact Demeter or EQUIPLY for more information about the company and school program.