Changing the world, one café at a time

Not far from the mystical temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia sits a café, set up with support from the University of Cambridge, that provides an opportunity for tourists to give back to the local community with its approach of 'people, planet, profits'.

Along the river front in Siem Reap in north-western Cambodia, the smell of amok, the sweet, fermented fish stock that underpins Khmer cuisine, hangs in the air as tourists dodge between tuk-tuks and hawkers selling deep-fried scorpions on sticks.

International visitors provide a significant boost to the city’s population of just under 140,000. Cambodia had more than six million visitors in 2018, most of whom headed to Siem Reap to visit the fabled Angkor Wat. This spectacular temple complex, the largest religious building in the world, is just one of around 50 temples that sit within Angkor, the ancient capital city of the Khmer Empire. Many of these are reminders of the fragility of civilisations: once great buildings now reclaimed by nature, where the roots of colossal trees snake over roofs and crash through walls.

Nowadays, Cambodia is among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 137th out of 185 countries for gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. And yet, among the abundance of hotels, restaurants and bars in Siem Reap, it is possible for a visitor to pass through the city almost unaware of the abject poverty that affects the lives of many Cambodians.

The true picture is never far away, however, as Georgina Hemmingway, founder of Footprint Cafés, a Cambridge Social Venture, discovered when she first visited the city in 2010.

“It’s very easy as a tourist in Siem Reap to arrive in the city, stay in a swanky hotel for three days, get a lift in a tuk-tuk along probably the only smooth road in the city to the temples. You then come back and can have your choice of any restaurant and any dish that you want.”

In the centre of the city’s tourist district is the notorious Pub Street, a raucous backpacker hangout.

Pub Street, Siem Reap (Marcin Konsek)

Pub Street, Siem Reap (Marcin Konsek)

“One night when I was in Pub Street, I was watching a lot of backpackers drinking whiskey buckets. It was after midnight and I saw a group of children walking down the street. They were probably aged between three and five, and they were going through the bins trying to find food.

“The lived reality of a tourist and the lived reality of someone in the community are very different.”

Sixty years ago, Cambodia’s future looked very different. It was a relatively flourishing country; some thought that it could have become as wealthy as neighbouring Singapore is today. But all this began to change in the 1960s.

Because of its proximity to Vietnam, Cambodia became caught up in the regional conflict. US forces bombed areas of Cambodia, destabilising its government and triggering a civil war that lasted from 1968 to 1975. Then, the Communist Party of Kampuchea – more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge – toppled the government. The country’s new rulers evacuated the country’s major cities, forcing people into hard labour and arbitrarily executing anyone considered an enemy of the regime; their bones littering the country’s notorious Killing Fields. It is one of the worst genocides in history: between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodians – a quarter of the population – are thought to have died before the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in January 1979.

Choeung Ek - "Killing Fields" (Le Fanciulle di Steph and Trish)

Choeung Ek - "Killing Fields" (Le Fanciulle di Steph and Trish)

Georgina first came to Cambodia in 2010 as part of a backpacking tour of southeast Asia. She was in the capital city, Phnom Penh, during the Bon Om Touk festival, which marks the changing of direction of the city’s main river, Tonlé Sap. That year, tragedy struck and around 350 people lost their lives on a stampede across the river’s Rainbow Bridge.

Although Georgina was not herself on the bridge, a series of related events – included that fateful night on Pub Street – led to her volunteering in the country and then co-founding her first café, New Leaf, together with former investment banker Ian Croft, who she had met while travelling. The café provided support for CCHP, the Cambodian Children's House of Peace, which provides “a home for poor children with good food, shelter, clothing; and educational, recreational and social resources”.

Every day, Georgina was touched by the warmth and generosity, but extreme hardship, of the Cambodian people she encountered. Laudable as the New Leaf café’s aims were, she felt there was more she could do – that she had to do.

Georgina graduated in 2004 from the University of Aberdeen with an MA in politics and international relations. After a time working in Parliament, she was drawn towards a career in international aid and development. But as her dreams of setting up an ambitious social enterprise by herself grew, she became acutely aware that she would need to develop her skills in a new direction.

In 2014, Georgina began a postgraduate diploma in Entrepreneurship, a year-long online and residential course at Cambridge Judge Business School. At the same time, she joined the Cambridge Social Ventures programme, which is embedded within the business school. The programme supports businesses that aim to have positive social impacts and is “designed for people who will drive their businesses forward to create real, scaleable, lasting social change”. To date, more than 120 early-stage and well-established social entrepreneurs have passed through its 12-month mentoring and support system, and a further 735 have been helped through weekend programmes.

Perhaps most inspiring – and, she says, most useful – about her time at Cambridge Judge was the opportunity not just to hear about huge successes, but to hear about people who had failed. “It’s a cliché, but it’s true that failure isn’t the end of the road – it’s something that you can learn from.”

Armed with the knowledge she gained from her time at Cambridge and fuelled by a desire to leave a positive footprint on the community, Georgina launched the aptly-named Footprint Café at Cambridge’s legendary Hot Numbers (itself an ethically minded, independent coffee shop). There, the invited audience, which included key names suggested by the team at Cambridge Judge, was treated to a taste of Cambodia for the night.

One of the guests was Dr Darrin Disley, a Cambridge scientist, entrepreneur and investor. Dr Disley is one of Cambridge’s big success stories, having set up Horizon Discovery Group, a gene-editing company, with seed funding from Cambridge Enterprise. When the company launched on the stock market, it was valued at $113 million, an all-time record for a life science company from the Cambridge Cluster.

Darrin Disley and Georgina Hemmingway

Darrin Disley and Georgina Hemmingway

As well as sharing his advice and experience, Dr Disley has supported several up-and-coming entrepreneurs he has met through Cambridge Judge. Georgina told him of her plans to set up Footprint Café. He did not take much convincing.

“The Footprint model impressed me in terms of its sustainability, scalability and potential for impact,” says Dr Disley. “It represents a gold standard charitable model, not only empowering individuals and communities but ensuring donations aren’t an ongoing requirement beyond the first five cafes."

The fact that the first café was to be started in Cambodia was also a big draw for Dr Disley. “I’d witnessed the devastation of the Khmer Rouge when I travelled to Cambodia in the mid 90’s. The idea that knowledge and education were targeted for elimination by the regime was deeply haunting.”

With $300,000 of backing from Dr Disley, Georgina returned to Siem Reap in 2015 to open her new café across the river from the main tourist centre.

Footprint Café, Siem Reap (Georgina Hemmingway)

Footprint Café, Siem Reap (Georgina Hemmingway)

Footprint Café is run on the principle of 3Ps: ‘People, Planet, Profit’.
It’s operated by a team of 16 local staff, headed by Pheakdey Yon. All staff receive fair wages, excellent working conditions, bonuses, and training and skills development.

"Pheakdey really does run the show," says Georgina. "He leads by example, he cares about the team and he is someone who could quite easily get a job somewhere else but chooses Footprint because of its model and impact."

Pheakdey (far right) with the original Footprint staff.

Pheakdey (far right) with the original Footprint staff.

Four of her original team have now moved on, and Georgina feels an almost motherly sense of pride in their development.

One of the original team is Piseth Seng.

“Piseth loved coffee – he was obsessed with coffee,” says Georgina. Footprint sponsored him to take part in the National Cambodian Barista Championships in Phnom Penh, where he was the runner up. When he eventually left, it was to move to Starbucks, which Georgina encouraged, recognising it would be good for his personal development. “Fast forward a year later, he’s got his own coffee shop in Phnom Penh and is now the National Cambodian Barista Champion.”

Piseth Send (back row, third from left) at National Barista Championship

Piseth Send (back row, third from left) at National Barista Championship

The café aims to be environmentally sustainable, doing all that it can to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’, as well as sourcing locally and ethically. This is immediately obvious to customers. As well as drinking from metal straws, rather than plastic, customers who use Footprint’s bathrooms will find themselves washing their hands in soap produced from used cooking oil, courtesy of Naga Earth, which recycles the oil into sustainable products. Footprint tries not to have plastic bags in its supply chain, and gives any it receives to Rehash Trash, which employs and supports disadvantaged women, helping them to learn new skills while earning an income recycling plastic bags and roadside rubbish into beautifully-crafted homewares.

All of the profits from the café are ploughed back into the community via grants, with the recipients decided by the local community. In the first round in August 2018, they awarded book grants to four different organisations. Recipients included Free to Shine, enabling it to build a mobile library to help educate some of the most vulnerable children in Cambodia, often living in hard-to-reach rural communities and exposed to human trafficking. Another went to Grace House Community Centre, which supports disabled children and their families in Cambodia’s floating villages.

Footprint Siem Reap makes it first book donations to Bridge of Life School

Footprint Siem Reap makes it first book donations to Bridge of Life School

The café also provides a space to work for budding young Cambodian entrepreneurs, helping them find their feet and gain confidence. While customers sip a freshly brewed latte or tuck into a mouth-watering chicken lok lak, upstairs ‘digital nomads’ take advantage of its enterprise hub. Half of the desk space will be free or heavily discounted, with priority given to innovative and sustainable ideas and to Cambodians or collaborations with Cambodians.

“There’s no end of talent and ambition in Siem Reap. Cambodian communities are absolutely hungry for knowledge and skills. But networks and resources are sometimes lacking,” explains Georgina. She hopes to do use her knowledge and networks to do “exactly what the Cambridge Judge Business School did for me, which was to build a support network and provide mentorship”.

Georgina invites guest speakers to run seminars and workshops in the enterprise hub. The inaugural event saw the return of Piseth, her first barista. “It was lovely having him coming back to teach other young Cambodians about coffee and running a café.”

Piseth Seng (right) kicking off at Footprint's new Enterprise Centre

Piseth Seng (right) kicking off at Footprint's new Enterprise Centre

Other speakers have included Georgina’s mentor Dr Belinda Bell, Director of the Cambridge Social Ventures Programme, who has also provided support in running Footprint’s social ventures weekend. Although the enterprise does not receive financial support from the programme, the connections and access to its networks are invaluable.

Buoyed by the success of the first café, Georgina has plans to expand. Dr Disley has provided additional funding, which will support two more cafés in two further countries. Each will need about $100,000 to get itself established, Georgina says. Once a café is financially sustainable, which usually takes about a year, it will start giving grant money as well as returning some profits to the UK charity to help set up further cafés. Dr Disley will be leading fundraising for a bigger, $1.5 million pot to help expand the venture further and faster.

The next Footprint Café planned will be in Thailand, on the island of Ko Pha-Ngan. Of course, Georgina doesn’t just want to set up a relaxing venue for people to drink coffee and eat lunch.

“We have the ambition of turning Ko Pha-Ngan into the first plastic-free island in Thailand,” she says. And once again, the networks Georgina has made through Cambridge Judge are helping. Through Dr Bell, she was introduced to Samanta Skrivere, who has shared her experience of setting up the Ministry of Waste, another of the Cambridge Social Ventures, which has launched a pilot project for island waste management in Indonesia to tackle the problem of ocean pollution.

Georgina hopes to get the Thailand café up and running by October 2019 and has just launched a ‘book drive’ to collect books to populate the shelves in the new café. She hopes to repeat the success of her 2016 drive, which saw businesses, schools, individuals and Cambridge University departments donate over 8,000 books for the Siem Reap café.

The location of the third café is still to be decided, but Georgina is looking at countries including Laos and Burma. Wherever Footprint Cafés take her, however, it is clear that the one country she will always return to is the one that awakened her desire to make a difference.

“I’ve been going to Cambodia on and off for ten years now. I think it’s always going to be a part of me, always somewhere that I want to go. Once you’ve been to Cambodia, it’s very hard to forget it. I’ve never met a group of people who are so resilient and so kind. It’s really changed my perspective. The café feels like a real family.”

Georgina and general manager Pheakdey Yon at Angkor Wat

Georgina and general manager Pheakdey Yon at Angkor Wat

Update: 17 November 2020

Footprint Café has been recognised by a Lonely Planet Best in Travel 2021 Award. Writing for Lonely Planet, Sarah Reid said:

"Blending wholesome Khmer cuisine and a unique approach to coworking, this Siem Reap social enterprise empowers locals to realize their business dreams."