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Changing the world, one café at a time

2 May 2019

The article at a glance

A café near the mystical temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, set up with support from Cambridge Judge Business School, provides …

A café near the mystical temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, set up with support from Cambridge Judge Business School, provides an opportunity for tourists to give back to the local community.

The pink hues of Sunrise over the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Riep, Cambodia.
Georgina Hemmingway and general manager Pheakdey Yon
Georgina Hemmingway with the café’s general manager, Pheakdey Yon

Along the riverfront in Siem Reap in north-western Cambodia, the smell of amok, a sweet, fermented fish stock, hangs in the air as tourists dodge between tuk-tuks and hawkers selling deep-fried scorpions on sticks. Visitors throng to the area to visit the fabled Angkor Wat temple complex, the largest religious building in the world.

Yet among the abundance of hotels, restaurants and bars in Siem Reap, there is abject poverty nearby – 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,” says Georgina. “The lived reality of a tourist and the lived reality of someone in the community are very different.”

So Georgina set out to do something to bridge that gulf – with help from the programmes at Cambridge Judge Business School. In 2014, she began a Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship, a year-long online and residential course at Cambridge Judge. At the same time, she joined the business school’s Cambridge Social Ventures programme.

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 Judge and fuelled by a desire to leave a positive footprint on the community, Georgina launched the aptly named Footprint Café at a Cambodia-themed dinner event in Cambridge. One of the guests was Dr Darrin Disley OBE, a Cambridge scientist, entrepreneur and investor.

“The Footprint model impressed me in terms of its sustainability, scalability and potential for impact,” says Dr Disley, who is a Fellow in Entrepreneurship at Cambridge Judge Business School. “It represents a gold standard charitable model.”

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 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.

The café aims to be environmentally sustainable, doing all that it can to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’, as well as sourcing locally and ethically. 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.

All profits from the café are ploughed back into the community via grants, with the recipients decided by the local community.

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 (Cambridge Judge) 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 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.

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. Dr Disley also will be leading fundraising for a bigger, $1.5 million pot to help expand the venture even further and faster.

The next Footprint Café planned will be in Thailand, on the island of Ko Pha-Ngan. 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 a 2016 drive, which saw businesses, schools, individuals and University of Cambridge departments donate over 8,000 books for the Siem Reap café.

The location of the third café is still to be decided: Georgina is looking at countries including Laos and Burma, but Cambodia will always retain a special place in her heart.

“I’ve been going to Cambodia on and off for 10 years now. I think it’s always going to be a part of me,” she says. “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.”

This article was adapted from a longer article published on the University of Cambridge website.