The backpack ‘social entrepreneurs’ giving back to Cambodian students.

When Canadian siblings Anika and Michael Funk founded ethically focused travel company Banana Backpacks in 2017, they had a very clear vision for what they intended to accomplish.

We wanted to address a problem we’ve both encountered when travelling – a lack of high-quality, practical traveller’s backpacks – while also incorporating a deeper purpose; a social mission offering customers the opportunity to give back,” Anika tells The Post, sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Phnom Penh.

It was in Cambodia – where Anika travelled and worked in her early 20s, before returning early last year to take up her current position working in the field of development – in which she identified exactly what this social cause would be.

My time in Cambodia really stayed with me, especially people’s warmth considering their tragic recent history. The legacy of that time can still be seen today, and witnessing firsthand the barriers to education many Cambodian children continue to face due to poverty, I knew that would be our cause,” the 27-year-old says.

It was for this reason that Banana Backpacks partnered with local NGO Caring for Cambodia (CfC), which since 2003 has trained teachers, provided educational tools and removed barriers to learning for pre-school to high school-aged children.

While Cambodia has made great strides since the country was decimated by decades of war and the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, extreme poverty, particularly in rural provinces, remains common. As a result, almost a quarter of Cambodian children aged seven to 14 are forced to leave school to work and support their families, according to Unesco.

But as part of their partnership, Banana Backpacks donates to CfC for every Khmer Explorer Travel Set sold, with the funds used to provide a full year’s free school meals to a child to help ease the financial burden of sending them to school.

In addition, each bag comes with its own unique touch to give the buyer a sense of connection with the project.

The name of the child whose education has been personally supported by the purchase is embroidered on the heart strap [the left hand side, nearest the heart] of the bag in Khmer – we felt it was important to create the connection,” Anika says.

Image: facebook.com/bananabackpacks

The rise of the social enterprise has continued unabated in recent years, spurred on by increasingly socially conscious consumers who wish to see businesses make a positive contribution to society.

Consequently, the Funks are among a growing cohort of young social entrepreneurs – innovators straddling the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors – connecting enterprise with social causes.

I think there’s a misconception that only charities are capable of positively contributing to society,” Anika says. “But I believe in harnessing many of the good aspects of business, such as creating jobs and economic development, and directing that towards a good purpose.”

This was a philosophy instilled in the siblings by their parents from a young age. Between the ages of two and 10, Anika and her brother would spend two months of each year immersed in small communities in rural Bali, Indonesia, as her parents – owners of an import-export business – would purchase products from local artisans and export them to Canada.

That was a fantastic life experience to get at such a young age. I saw how empowering it could be for local entrepreneurs, artists and businesses to engage with them through ethical practices,” she says.

Community empowerment

It was this strong focus on community empowerment and ethical manufacturing that led Anika’s brother Michael to scour the region in search of the ideal location in which to produce the backpacks.

After weeks of personally visiting factories championing worker’s rights, it was just outside Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam in which he uncovered a workshop that ticked every box.

We chose our factory in Vietnam because they are a hub in the local community and really respect their workers’ rights, but importantly they are also able to produce a very high-quality product for our customers.”

While we wanted to produce our bags in Cambodia, we struggled to find a manufacturer in the country that met our needs at the time. We would love to do so in the future though,” she says.

The backpacks are designed with convenience and comfort in mind, inspired by the siblings’ own experiences on the road.

We’re both big travellers and we found ourselves regularly complaining about how impractical backpacks are. Whenever we’d get to a hostel we would need to completely empty our bags just to find something; we knew we could design something better,” Anika says.

To remedy this, Banana Backpacks have two large flat compartments in place of the traditional single hole to make packing and unpacking the bag more convenient, while also making them very space efficient.

Banana Backpacks went live to the public in February 2018 and immediately received an order of 200 backpacks, from which a donation to 200 students was immediately made. In addition to their backpack sets, they also sell 100 per cent organic cotton T-shirts produced in Bali.

You can find out more about the company and purchase an education-promoting backpack by visiting Banana Backpacks’ website (bananabackpacks.com) and their social media channels (Facebook: Bananabackpacks, Instagram: Bananatrail).

The above article by Alastair McCready first published on phnompenhpost.com in Jan, 2019.