[NLS Story Series] Cooking up beautiful transformations

NEW LAO STOVE Story Series

The NLS story series tells of stories of people – their past, their struggles, and most of all, their successes and hopes – in rural Cambodia and how their beautiful journey is in part defined by their having crossed paths with the New Lao Stove.

The Story of VANN TOLA, the cookstove superstar.

 


Tola started training for the improved cookstove business when she was just 16. She had her first production at 18 of a thousand stoves. Now, seven years later, she owns four buildings churning out approximately 6,000 improved cookstoves every month – the biggest by any producer in the Improved Cookstove Producers and Distributors Association of Cambodia (ICoProDAC) – and employs 30 workers, half of whom are women, and works directly with 4 retailers and 14 distributors.

Vann Tola is a cookstove superstar. Her story – one that tells of extraordinary transformation – has enticed many a writer and filmmaker interested to show how an astute combination of daring, hard work and innate business sense has made this daughter of forest wood cutters into the owner of the biggest improved cookstove production facility in the Kampong Chhnang province, and possibly in the whole of Cambodia.

A reluctant entrepreneur, the cookstove business, she says was rather forced onto her by circumstances: she was 16 and had dropped out of school two years prior, and she felt that she had to take over her father’s fledgling New Lao Stove business when the latter decided to hide away in a pagoda and lead the life of a monk, in order to support her mother and five siblings.

But this reluctant entrepreneur has proven to be a natural: from an initial production of a thousand stoves per month by six workers in 2008, approximately 6,000 units of New Lao Stove – the highest number among all New Lao Stove producers – are now churned out by four adjacent ground-level cement-floored and metal-roofed production buildings each month. She employs 30 workers – half of whom are women – and works directly with 4 retailers and 14 distributors, who travel all around the country all the way to Banteay Meanchey to the northwest along the Thai border, and to the coastal south on Sihanoukville, plying various wares including the New Lao Stove.

For her demonstrable accomplishment – something that other entrepreneurs could find lessons and inspiration in – in the improved cookstove business, she was elected president of the Improved Cookstove Producers and Distributors Association of Cambodia (ICoProDAC), a post that she held for four years before stepping down into the vice-presidency in 2014.

Officers of the Improved Cookstove Producers and Distributors Association of Cambodia (ICoProDAC), of which Tola is now vice-president, meet hours before they were to present to the General Assembly their vision and strategy moving forward, in this occasion of the association’s 10th year founding anniversary.

The most difficult, she says, was having to manage all aspects of the business. Having made her first production when she was only 18, her young age also put her at a disadvantage sometimes in dealing with older workers at her employ. Add to that the fickleness of the young improved cookstove market, and it was almost too much for the young Tola. But not quite.

Soon, demand for the New Lao Stove shot up, mostly because of GERES’ marketing and business-matching (producer to retailers) efforts. And it was not long before the distributors would demand to carry no stove other than the New Lao Stove.

Tola sees a lot more room for her business to grow. Her goal is to be able to add 1,000 to 2,000 more stoves produced each month. She is determined now more than ever after giving birth to her first child – a daughter – just two months ago. For her child, she hopes not to live through what she as a young child had had to live through: parents going away for weeks into the forests to fell and cut trees and make around USD125.00, and some other times, none, when the ox had fallen ill.

Tola is determined now more than ever to grow her business. For her newborn child she hopes for a better life and education than what she had had growing up.

“If I weren’t a cookstove producer, I would probably be a factory worker,” she surmises. “Having your own business is so much better. And the New Lao Stove business is doing so good what with the consistently high demand for it. I will never go back to producing traditional stoves,” she ends. GERES, March 2015