Expat Q&A: Starting a coffee social enterprise in Cambodia

In this series we talk to Cambodia expats about their lives here, and what they know now that they wish they had known when they first moved to Cambodia. This week we talk with Swapnil Deshmukh, an expat originally from India who moved from Singapore to Phnom Penh to work in banking, and ended up starting a social enterprise that provides training and jobs to the Deaf community.

Swapnil Deshmukh in Cambodia at Angkor Wat

Swapnil wishing he had moved to Cambodia sooner.

Why did you move to Cambodia and what do you do here?

Before moving to Cambodia, I was working for a Digital Banking company in Singapore. I had first visited Cambodia in 2013 on a business trip. I was touched by the people here – many of them are super kind and made time to be nice to each other. In that first trip, one particular moment stood out to me. At a traffic light, a tuk tuk driver was next to a couple with a small baby on a moto. Within those 60-90 seconds, the tuk tuk driver exchanged pleasantries with the couple and even played with the little baby in the mother’s arms. I never experienced anything like that in Singapore or India.

So, in early 2016, when a regional bank offered me a job as Head of Digital Banking, I gleefully took it and moved to Phnom Penh. In 2018, I started “Socials – Coffee & Humanity”, a social enterprise to empower deaf people in Cambodia. These days I shuttle between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh, as I want to expand Socials in Vietnam.

What do you wish you had known before you moved to Cambodia?

I wish I knew that one of the best things of my life (Socials Coffee) would happen to me in Cambodia; I would have moved here sooner!

Swapnil Deshmukh Socials Coffee and Humanity

Swapnil at Socials Coffee & Humanity.

How did you end up setting up Socials Coffee & Humanity?

In 2017, I was Head of Digital Banking with a leading bank in Cambodia. I was on a trip to Hoi An in Vietnam, when I accidentally walked into a café that was full of people, yet very quiet. I realized it was a silent café, completely operated by deaf people and served great coffee.

When I did some more research, I noticed that developed countries like Australia, US, Singapore already had cafes and other businesses operated by deaf people. There are more than 50,000 deaf people in Cambodia. Not every job requires one to speak, listen or move things around. As a result of this unconscious bias, businesses are excluding some highly skilled and talented labour from the job market.

I came back to Phnom Penh and resigned from my position at the Bank. I knew my intentions were right and there was an opportunity to make a difference in serving humanity. Thus, I set up “Socials – Coffee & Humanity” as a social enterprise, which is focused on generating entrepreneurship and employment opportunities for deaf people.

What is the plan for Socials Coffee going forward?

We started our journey two years ago with our first branch. We have four branches now and have trained more than ten deaf people in the last two years.

We aim to be socially responsible and environment friendly. We promise above industry average wages, medical insurance (becoming the first enterprise to introduce insurance for part time staff in Cambodia) and other meaningful benefits to our staff.

We are currently in the first phase of our ongoing effort wherein we have created a much-loved coffee brand with physical and digital distribution network. We have four branches and have trained over ten deaf people at Socials.

In the second phase, we want to empower the deaf people to become entrepreneurs and set up their own business (e.g. coffee carts) by providing them with hands-on training, tools and necessary financing, ultimately giving them financial control in their own hands.

We also hope to partner with other cafes and businesses, so that we can train deaf people who can then work at other cafes and businesses.

To learn more about Socials Coffee, you can visit their Facebook page, or find a list of their locations on Google Maps.

3 Responses to Expat Q&A: Starting a coffee social enterprise in Cambodia

    Lurchie says:

    A great read! I always find it fascinating to read about the lives and experience of expats who have managed to call Cambodia home. :) Myself included.

    joseph says:

    I first went to Cambodia in 1996.
    There was no internet search for plane tickets, you just picked up the sunday times and went to the last page where the ticket brokers advertised.
    Not one of them would sell me a ticket to Cambodia since there had been a kidnapping and killing of a westerner…so I bought a ticket to VietNam.
    I wanted to go there anyway after watching body counts every night in the 60’s and hearing how terrible these people are. I had to see for myself. They were great.
    In VN I went to the Cambodian embassy and got a visa the next day, so I booked a flight to PP.
    I didn’t realize at first what I was in the middle of. The people are beautiful (it’s why I’ve been back 7 times) but it could have been a dangerous time. Once on the back of a motorbike at a traffic light in PP, the guy on the back of the motorbike next to me had his hand in a manila envelope. When I looked at him he slid his hand out to reveal a 9mm.
    I smiled and pointed my camera at him and he just laughed as they took off. You really didn’t go out at night and the restaurants had printed right on their menu “If you’re afraid to be robbed, we deliver.”
    PP was great and chilling, photos I have of S-21 and the killing fields and the tree where babies were beaten to death…
    When I wanted to go to Siem Reap I was told I would not make it by land and I didn’t want to fly, so I went on the 6 hr boat crossing of the Tonle Sap. When I bought my ticket I was told to not sit by a window because sometimes they shoot at the boats from the shore. We stopped at a floating market for a break and something to eat and it was one of the best rest stops I’ve ever been to.
    Once in Siem Reap,I hooked up with a guy on a motor bike where the boat docked to get me a room. He took me to a clean place and I gave him cash to get me a 3 day pass to the temples and drive me around outside the tourist zone. The temples were so cool to see for the first time. When I wanted to stop and take pictures, my driver would stay a hundred feet from me. I didn’t realize why at first but then figured out that he didn’t want to be near a westerner if something happened.
    Besides people at a wedding and workers doing restoration, there were only a few others. I have photos of the temples with no people in them.
    One day after my driver brought me lunch, I went to the top of the main temple at Angkor Wat and sat in the shade then passed out and had the best cat nap ever…until a few local kids starting throwing pebbles at me and run away! This was their playground and I have a great photo of the four of them.
    You couldn’t leave the perimeter because of the landmine danger and there were no vendors selling. There were some landmine victims begging, but one women had no hands or feet. Can a landmine do that?
    Cambodia has it’s issues but what country doesn’t? It’s just a great place with great people and a lot of potential…andthe waterfall at Kulen is the best.

    AdExBu says:

    Very interesting to start writing about this !
    Thanks !

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