Young people save for the future

By Chris Hufstader
Plen Soben, 25, with her two-year-old daughter, runs a small store and restaurant in a village called Kouk Sangkerch. She is a member of two Saving for Change groups, one of which she started herself especially for young people in her village. “I tell young people to join an SFC group, the interest rate is low so it’s easy to pay back a loan,” she says. “They will learn to manage money, reduce their expenses, and learn to save more. And if a lot of people here keep saving, it Photo: Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

Saving for Change in Cambodia helps young entrepreneurs save, and build a better life

It might seem like an unlikely place to open a business. First, there’s the name: Kouk Sangkerch, which means “Lice Hill,” in Khmer. The second challenge: It’s in an active land mine clearing operation. Men in protective gear are searching, carefully digging, and finding, mines left over from conflicts in the last century. One of them says the previous week they uncovered two metric tons (more than four thousand pounds) of unexploded ordinance, as it’s called. And in the previous month, a vehicle was destroyed in an explosion.

Signs warn of land mines in Kouk Sangkerch village, a deadly legacy of 20th century conflicts. Photo: Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

But people live here, including Plen Soben, with her husband and two-year-old daughter. She’s opened a store selling groceries, and noodle soup, hot and ready to eat at a table at the side of the road. It’s just a few yards from the skull and crossbones signs warning people about the mines in the area.

The 25-year-old businesswoman bold enough to start a business here says she is a member of a Saving for Change group that offered special business training for young entrepreneurs. In it she learned how to attract customers, of which there are many in Kouk Sangkerch, and how to price goods so she can move a lot of her inventory and make some money, even if the profit margins are narrow.

And she learned the importance of saving. “I always just spent money,” she says, standing in front of her store. “Now, it’s in the box,” referring to the locked cash box each Saving for Change group uses to hold its deposits.

Alternatives for youth

This high school in northwestern Cambodia has built an open-air classroom to meet the need for space. Cambodian children largely attend and finish primary school, but attendance falls off drastically in secondary school years and the country is struggling to improve graduation rates. With nearly half of Cambodia’s population younger than 25 years old, young people need alternatives to low-wage labor, migration, or gang activity. Entrepreneurial training, and basic financial literacy made possible by Oxfam partner Youth Council of Cambodia are designed to help young people save money and start their own businesses. Photo: Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

Oxfam’s partner, the Youth Council of Cambodia (YCC), is helping young people organize Saving for Change groups, and providing training for aspiring entrepreneurs to help them learn to start and run successful businesses. The SFC group members can be as young as 12, who are saving for school and for future business ventures when they graduate. It’s a way to help young people save money each week, sometimes just 50 cents, or as much as a few dollars, says Rom Teut, who works at YCC.

He says many young people drop out of high school and struggle to build a future. “We can help young people create jobs, small businesses, and build a future, instead of just selling their labor.” Teut says YCC has helped start 50 groups, and hopes to have 25 new ones forming this year. Each group has about 15 members. The project is being funded by the Red Nose Day Fund at Comic Relief Inc.

Plen Soben joined a group and saved some money, combined it with a loan, and started her store. She decided to start another Saving for Change group in her community just for young people, so now she is a member of two groups and saves about five dollars a week at each one. She says that money management skills, access to capital at only three percent interest, and a safe place to save money are all practical reasons for young people to join a group. “When youth meet, they make friends and build solidarity,” she says, noting some of the other benefits for group membership. “They learn from each other, and are less likely to become gangsters or drug addicts, or just spend all their money without saving anything.”  

Learn more about the history of Saving for Change since Oxfam started the program in 2005.

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