Kinyei in Cambodia

by tuftsigl
Jul 18
Katherine Hallaran is a Masters of Law and Diplomacy (MALD) candidate in the class of 2015 at the Fletcher School and an Empower fellow.
Approaching the small cafe nestled in the dead end where streets 1 1/2 and 2 meet, I am overcome by a feeling of levity. The two story French colonial that houses the cafe before me is endlessly charming. Its balcony adorned with overhanging plants, partially obstructed by a tangled web of wires, still has its original clay tile roof. Downstairs, pushbikes line the entrance, and a sign hangs, slightly crooked that reads "street 1 1/2". I pause, wanting to take in the entirety of this moment. 
Four years ago, two Australian colleagues and I opened the doors of Kinyei Cafe for business. After just a few months of planning, a rapidly rolled out Kickstarter campaign, and many late nights ideating on how this cafe would meaningfully transform the community landscape in Battambang, Cambodia we started out on a journey with no set destination. We hired five Khmer team members and we made excellent coffee our number one priority. 
On the way, we learned more than a few things about the peculiarities of doing business in Cambodia, about the ins and outs of espresso making in a humid and electrically unpredictable environment, and about what kind of tourism outfit we wanted to collectively create with our team.
Today, Kinyei Cafe inhabits the same space it did back then, and the years are evident in the well-worn interior, with grooved tiles and scuffed white walls. The small wooden tables and stools we commissioned from a Khmer friend's father are sturdier than ever, their color dramatically deeper than their initial bright cherry finish, having weathered many diner's elbows, and the relentless Cambodian heat.
But I'm most exhilarated (if broken down: half overjoyed, half anxious) to see the people who run this cafe now, the young Khmer team that has independently been managing the business, growing and diversifying the product offerings, and training and supporting budding baristas; they are what makes it all matter, they breath the life into it. They are who I stay up into the wee hours of the night waiting to Skype, to hear about the successful switch to a new local roaster from Phnom Penh, the nervous plans for kitchen renovations and the number crunching to ensure budgeting for 13 month salaries.   
When we started Kinyei Cafe, we considered it a tangent project to the main vision of Kinyei as an organization. Kinyei's original purpose was to create an alternative ecosystem to that of standard development aid, where we felt the words 'beneficiaries' and 'donors' predicate a damaging power asymmetry. What we wanted for Kinyei was a space where Cambodians and foreigners could come together and learn from one another through participant-driven workshops, collaborations, all in the spirit of entrepreneurialism. The Cafe was simply meant to provide a forum that brought people together initially. What we ended up learning was that the 'how' rather than the 'what' mattered most. 
Battambang, Cambodia is a place where many young Khmer people from all different provinces are coming to get the promised fruits of a university education.  The nascent higher education sector in Cambodia, however, seems to be growing more quickly than it can provide for, and many young people are left discouraged by the unmet expectations of their college curricula. It quickly became clear Kinyei Cafe was offering an added benefit for these individuals, a complement to their university degree; a chance for these motivated young people to channel their energy into developing professional skills that could be translated to any number of sectors. Part time jobs to supplement scholarships are in short supply in Cambodia, so the extra income also made a difference in terms of being able to save a bit early on. Our team was not homogenous, and this gave it a depth and strengthened its fabric. We hired university students, individuals formerly supported by NGOs, those with experience and those with none, in order to allow for a network to form organically across socio economic lines, rural urban divides, and other polarizing identifiers. 
When we started Kinyei Cafe, my Australian partners and I did not intend to stay for years on end. Instead, we saw the need to develop a plan for local management and eventual ownership early on. We decided that as long as the team saw value in the project, we would support it remotely, and assist with financial and operational functions of the businesses as the teams' saw fit.
Returning to St 1 1/2 today, I'm here to provide on-the-ground support in the form of management communications training, strategic business development and contingency planning. I'm also here to have the most delicious latte in Cambodia, an opinion not just of my own but decided by the National Cambodian Restaurant Association when not one, but two of Kinyei's baristas were crowned the National Barista Champion in two consecutive years. I'm here also to ask the team what they've accomplished in the past year, what they're proud of, where they see this whole thing going, and to share with them the mistakes I feel that I made early on, to encourage them to take time to reflect often along the way. 
As I sit down with the managers to dig into how they've grown in the past year, I'm struck by what I hear. They are proud that they secured a strong relationship with a new bean roaster, that they feel comfortable using an ATM card, that they are confident making conversation and friendships with shop patrons. But what I hear which sticks out the most is this; they're proud that they have recruited and trained new team members to continue on the legacy that they've created. This, I feel, is what it is all about; the reinvention of the project, the learnings passed on, and more and more young people feeling confident and accountable, ready to responsibly lead.

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