Thousands of children live on the streets of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Friends International provides education, vocational training and work experience in their restaurants and shops so children can earn their way off the streets for good. Alvin Hall advises them how to boost their income, to help even more youngsters.
There are 20,000 children living rough or working on the streets of the Cambodian capital. But how can serving up spiders to tourists help them?
In the corner of one of Phnom Penh’s busiest restaurants, a group of tourists is tucking into tarantula. Crushed, then fried and dipped in lime and pepper sauce, the dish is considered a delicacy in Khmer cuisine.
“Tastes just like liver,” one of them pronounces, washing his mouthful of crispy arachnid down with a large gulp of pineapple daiquiri.
Spider is just one of the local dishes on offer at this restaurant, Romdeng, one of two restaurants run by the social enterprise Friends International.
Its aim is to help young people off the streets and into employment and education.
The restaurants, just like the shops, beauty salons and barbers which Friends also run in Phnom Penh, are staffed almost entirely by former street children.
At Romdeng they have trained as chefs, kitchen staff and waiters. But this is not just charity. Their efforts bring in hundreds of diners, and thousands of dollars, every month. Every penny of profit is ploughed back into the organisation.
Friends was started in 1994 when Frenchman Sebastien Marot was visiting Cambodia on his way to starting a job in Japan. The sight of the hundreds of children he saw on the streets of Phnom Penh affected him so deeply that he never made it any further east.
“I found the situation completely unacceptable,” Mr Marot says. “I couldn’t not help.”
It is impossible not to notice Cambodia’s street children.
As you watch them scavenge through piles of roadside garbage for their next meal, it is easy to see why Marot was so affected.
It is estimated that there are 20,000 children currently living and working rough on the streets of Cambodia. Three quarters of them turn to regular substance abuse.
Teenager Dara, who doesn’t wish to be identified by his real name, was one of them.
He is now training as a chef in the Friends restaurants but had previously turned to drugs when violence split his family up.
“We had family problems. My stepfather beat my mum, so I didn’t want to stay,” he says.
“When I first arrived on the streets it was tough. There were lots of street gangsters who’d beat me. I started sniffing glue to make me feel good. It made me happy and all the stress and suffering would go away.”
Dara is just one of the 16,000 vulnerable young people who Friends reaches out to annually.
They work with all age groups, from babies to young adults. It provides emotional support, basic education and, for those who need it, transitional care homes.
But its main focus is vocational training – enabling children to earn their way off the streets for good. From cooking to hairdressing, mechanics to manicuring, the children are taught skills which will stay with them for life.
Mr Marot says that his organisation’s main aim is to let the children decide how they should be helped.
“When I first came here they told me clearly that they wanted education,” he explains.
“But coming from the West I thought that meant teachers and classrooms. Within two weeks all the kids had left and I realised that by education they meant learning a way to make money – vocational training, not schooling”.
Turning training centres into self-sustaining businesses is one of the ways in which Friends funds its social mission. As well as restaurants, it also runs a barbers, a beauty salon and three shops all of which are staffed by Friends trainees.
They tap into Cambodia’s bustling tourist trade of two million visitors each year.
The shops, which sell products made by the trainees, such as bags, scarves and jewellery, contribute almost a quarter of the revenue generated by Friends in Cambodia, providing both the trainees and the organisation with an income.
Financial consultant and presenter Alvin Hall, who advised Friends as part of the series Helping Social Entrepreneurs, says: “The business model created by Sebastien and his team is inspiring.
“It’s impressive that they have so many ideas and it’s clear from his financial statements that Sebastien stretches the money he has to ultimate cost-effectiveness.”
Dream come true
But while garnering awards, grants and celebrity friends, Friends has remained focused on those who really matter – the street children.
Dara, the trainee chef, credits Friends with changing his life. And he isn’t the only member of his family to have been helped.
His younger sister attends the free education classes there and his mother has been trained as a seamstress and sells her products in the Friends shops. “Working, where possible, with the entire family is one of Friend’s main aims,” Mr Marot states.
It’s an holistic approach which has given Dara every chance of a better life.
“I want to complete this course and get a good job. Once I have money, I will rent a house for my mother and help my sister so she can have a good future too,” he says.
Thanks to Friends, his dreams look likely to become a reality. But in the meantime, he is hard at work in the Friends restaurant kitchen preparing spiders to be served up to the hungry lunchtime crowd.
Tarantulas, tourists and former street children – it’s an unlikely mix, but one from which Friends has created an enviable recipe for success.