From Sculptor to Toilet Salesman
Life before toilets
Cheang Pros is a 30-year old sculptor-turned-toilet salesman with high hopes for his new toilet business. In his early 20s, Pros left his hometown in Svay Rieng and together with his brother set out in search of employment and opportunity in Kampong Cham province. Pros began learning the sculpting trade, pre-casting concrete sculptures of Buddhist deities to sell to local pagodas. After 2 years as an apprentice, Pros was able to start his own sculpture business in Kampong Siem district. It was not easy: Pros could sell an average of 2 sculptures per month, but as the work was on commission, he could not rely on a steady income from month to month. Without a rice field in Kampong Cham and with no other sources of income, Pros struggled to grow his small business and support his wife and 2 small children.
When he had enough money, Pros invested in a ring mold and began producing concrete rings, commonly used in Cambodia for water storage, wells and latrine pit linings. With one mold, Pros could produce about 3 rings per day. He estimates that he could sell about 32 rings per month, about 20 of which were sold for latrine pit linings. Pros could not afford to keep much stock, so he usually waited for a customer to come to his shop and put in an order. Although he sold concrete rings – an essential component of the conventional Cambodian latrine – he did not sell any other toilet components.
Taking the toilet plunge
When staff from the WASH-M project first came to visit Pros in November 2010, he wasn’t sure he was ready to take the risk on a product with so little demand. He thought it over and reflected on the potential market: hundreds of households in his commune alone without any toilet at all. The profit potential seemed good, and he hoped that involvement with the WASH-M team would help him improve his business management.
In January 2011, Pros decided to take the toilet plunge. Starting up a whole new toilet business line required buying 5 new ring molds on credit, and also taking credit for new molds to produce toilet slabs, pit covers and, most importantly, the new pre-cast toilet ‘chamber’ which eliminated the need for costly bricks and masonry work. By February, he was in business, producing and selling dozens of toilets in his commune.
A microfinance loan to ease the transport bottleneck
By March, Pros was struggling to keep up with the demand for his toilets. The problem wasn’t with production capacity, but with transport. He had started his business with just 1 moto-romock (a motorbike with a small carriage), which could carry just one latrine set at a time. He quickly realized he would need a full-sized truck, and turned to a local microfinance institution (MFI).
“The best thing is to satisfy the customer. If they want it, I can give it…Before I didn’t know about how to satisfy people when they asked for specific things. Now I learned how to give them what they want.”
After reviewing his business plans and practices- including the improved stock management and sales tracking systems put in place with support from the WASH-M team- the MFI agreed to a 2-year, USD 4000 loan. With his new truck, Pros is able to transport up to 15 latrine sets per day. With 6 full-time workers producing and delivering his toilets and a healthy stock of latrine sets, Pros can now meet the growing demand in his commune and has expanded his sales area to two more communes.
The customer is always right
Pros is now selling over 50 toilet sets per month. He currently has 5 sales agents working across 3 communes, but he prefers to play an active role in sales and marketing as well. Pros attends as many sales events as he can, bringing along a truck full of toilets for immediate sale.
Using his sculptor’s eye for detail, Pros has differentiated his product by using tiles of different colors and designs: consumers can choose the style and color that suits them, and he will also ‘custom design’ the toilet slab with the tiles of their choice.
‘The best thing is to satisfy the customer. If they want it, I can give it…Before I didn’t know about how to satisfy people when they asked for specific things. Now I learned how to give them what they want.’
Pros also knows his market: rural consumers often do not have all the cash in hand for a full payment, so he offers credit of up to one month to help close the deal. Pros estimates that about half of his customers pay in full when he delivers the toilet. The rest usually pay 50% on delivery and the remainder within 2 weeks. He keeps a track of outstanding payments and follows up personally.
When asked about his competition, Pros is dismissive. A nearby ring producer sells his rings for 30% more than Pros, and he feels he has the competitive edge with the home-delivered self-installable toilet set and his ‘customer service’ orientation.
A critical time for his business
At present, he is able to arrange trade credit for his inputs of sand, rock and cement. (His ceramic pans, imported from Vietnam and bought from a Phnom Penh wholesaler, are paid for on delivery). He has begun paying off mold equipment and has made the first couple of payments on his truck loan. Pros has set himself some ambitious sales targets. He plans to expand his sales area to encompass four more communes, and also wants to add a range of other construction materials to his product line to capitalize on his new consumer base.
Factored into his business planning is his prediction that toilet sales will decrease in the leaner wet season months. Pros entered the market at the peak sales season, just after the Dec-Jan harvest when rural consumers have the highest income. Luckily for him, the wet season is the time when he can expect more work from the sculpting side of his business. Pros believes he will be able to keep his laborers fully employed in sculpture making and toilet sales through the wet season: in his estimation, keeping trained labor on and ready to respond in the next peak toilet season is critical in the rural Cambodian labor market.
Cheang Pros has started strong and certainly has the entrepreneurial spirit. We will keep you posted to see how his business develops…