Kai Kuramoto is the founder of Cleanbodia – a social enterprise that develops ideas and products which reduce waste in Cambodia.
Human Asia eagerly spoke to Kai recently.
What was your inspiration to start Cleanbodia and how did you get started with it?
Kai: My inspiration came from realizing that by reducing the amount of plastic I personally use would have little impact on the bigger battle against plastic pollution. In Cambodia, people use five times as many plastic bags per person compared to the average outside of the country. This is a problem in itself but added to a very limited waste management infrastructure, it creates a place where piles of trash along streets and streams are the norm. I often hear tourists that have visited Cambodia say how beautiful the country is if it wasn’t for all the plastic lying around. So how do we get to a point where we can get rid of that stigma? Completely eliminating single-use plastic is the end goal but it isn’t feasible in the current market. A total ban would create a vacuum and have devastating consequences for small, local businesses. We have to have alternatives combined with education to start making progress in improving the environment here and biodegradable bags just made sense to introduce.
Your environmentally friendly bags are made of cassava. How did you find that this plant can be made into a bag and how durable is it?
Kai: Before I started this, I didn’t even know what cassava was! Bioplastics can be made from a variety of different plants but the key ingredient is the starch, which cassava has a lot of. However, cassava is relatively easy to grow and isn’t a main food crop like corn so the cost is much cheaper. And cassava is grown throughout Southeast Asia which means we aren’t producing greenhouse gases to ship across an ocean.
To be an effective alternative to traditional plastic bags, we have to replicate what they do well and plastic is definitely lightweight yet quite strong. We don’t want to have to produce a bag that three times as thick just to be able to hold the same amount of weight. Our bags are all designed and tested to have the elasticity and tensile strength comparable or better than plastic bags.
You have two main products, biodegradable bags and compostable bags. What is the difference between them?
Kai: Both of the biodegradable and compostable bags use cassava starch as their main ingredient. The biodegradable bags contain plastic which makes it longer to biodegrade, about 6 years. However, this allows them to be produced cheaper thus making them more accessible, particularly in markets like Cambodia. The compostable material contains no plastic and is compostable in under 2 years.
What were the biggest challenges you faced when starting Cleanbodia?
Kai: We struggled early on with awareness; both with the negative effects of single-use plastic bags and reaching a customer base that valued our product as much as we did. Much of the local community here believe that plastic bags are modern, hygienic, and a luxury. That’s a difficult perception to change to say they are in fact dangerous to us and our environment. But in just a few years, we’ve started to see an increase in environmental awareness here, particularly among the younger generation, which is really exciting. There’s still a long way to go but if we even had a tiny part in educating about plastic pollution then we are doing something right. Many of our customers find us through word of mouth which validates what we are trying to do but requires some patience in growing our clientele.
Currently, we are really challenged by improving our operational efficiency. Ideally, our customers could order, pay, and receive their bags with just a few clicks of a button. Despite having no shortage of smartphones and wifi, many customers still prefer to make phone calls over trusting that a website received their order. And cash is still king in Cambodia. A handful of online payment systems have finally appeared but that market is still very young and fractured. I’m probably too stubborn to accept the way business has been done here but I really push for it to modernize. It’s not only more efficient but more importantly it isn’t sustainable.
Any plans to create new innovations for other eco-friendly products?
Kai: Initially we were very open to finding any product that could help reduce plastic pollution. However, we quickly realized just how large the plastic bag market is and all the work we’d have to do to make even the smallest dent in it. Worldwide, plastic bag production is still increasing which is hard to grasp with all we know about its effects. We’ll continue to focus on improving our current products for the time being and if we happen to figure out a way to do injection molding with our materials, then we’ll see if it makes sense to expand in that direction.
How is the acceptance of your bags in the community, and what is their feedback so far?
Kai: We have been very grateful to receive so much positive feedback. Almost everyone loves what we are doing but that doesn’t always translate into sales. There’s currently a gap in understanding why our bags are more expensive than traditional plastic bags. Business owners always want our products but when they see that it will cost more, they shut down. Both corporate social responsibility and marketing towards environmentally conscious customers are new ideas that are just starting to appear here. But overall, our reception has been better than I would have initially imagined.
Kai, please tell us a little about yourself and what you did before starting Cleanbodia.
Kai: I am a Japanese-American born and raised near Chicago. I studied finance in university but ended up managing the technical side of conferences and conventions across the US for most of my career. In all my jobs before living in Cambodia I never felt what I was doing was truly impactful at the end of the day. Everything I was doing was someone else’s priority, never mine. When I started Cleanbodia in 2015, that all changed. I felt that my work was a positive for the community and, for the first time in my career, loved knowing the successes and failures of my company rest solely on my shoulders. Looking back, both my mother and brother are entrepreneurs but for some reason had never thought to go down that path. Now it’s hard to envision me not being an entrepreneur!
Are you a ‘clean freak’?
Kai: Ha, I’m not entirely sure what is meant by ‘clean freak’! In terms of the environment, I wouldn’t say I’m hardcore or live an entirely green lifestyle. I really commend those that are environmentally conscious all day, every day. That’s really challenging to do! I try to incorporate small habits or hacks to live better, not just environmentally but in all aspects of my life. I’m less likely to stick with something if I completely uproot my standard of living. And I think that has helped me look at how to reach people that aren’t doing green things in their daily routine. Most people like the idea of change as long as it doesn’t disrupt their lives. So how can we get big results from tiny actions? These are things I really enjoy searching out and testing.
How are you reinventing the relationship that people have with their environment?
Kai: First, I’ve had to reinvent my own relationship with the environment. I took for granted that cities didn’t have piles of waste on the street, rivers and lakes were free from bottles floating everywhere, and the air wasn’t filled with smog from poorly running engines. Now, when I’m able to get to a place filled with nature, I instantly notice how much better my body feels. And if I feel that strong a difference, what affect does it have on the plants, and animals, and insects that our ecosystem depends on?
In Cambodia, education on the environment isn’t a priority. And that’s okay. In a developing country, there are more pressing needs in the educational system. But it does make my job harder. We can talk about the Great Pacific garbage patch but Cambodia has a small coastline and a large portion of Cambodians have never left their country, so that conversation has little meaning. The small message on our bags which translates to “Made from plants” and hopefully makes someone think about where a plastic bag normally comes from. Our bags feel and smell different than the chemical-laden plastic bags and I encourage people to touch and sniff them. I hope these little things start the idea that we should know where and how things we use in our daily life come from. Cambodians have great pride in their country, their temples, their food, and rightfully so. I want them to be able to showcase those things in the brightest, cleanest light.
What can people do in their day to day life to protect the environment?
Kai: The best way to protect the environment is to probably stop whatever it is you are doing right now. Almost every action we do has a consequence in our ecosystem, mostly negative. Your phone will create hazardous e-waste when you decide to get a newer one; the vehicle you traveled in today is burning a hole in our ozone; the electricity you are using likely comes from a non-renewable resource. The fact is that the Earth would flourish if it weren’t for humans living on it.
But that’s the doom and gloom outlook. Luckily we have reached a point where we are starting to understand our effect on the environment and can start to create technologies to limit our damage. We have a long way to go still and we’ll need to buy time for those innovations to take shape. The best thing someone can do to protect the environment is the the easiest thing they can do. Whether that’s walking to work, buying a reusable bag, or refusing a plastic straw in your drink (How did people drink before straws were invented?) just do something simple. Change your habits little by little. It may seem small, and if you can do more by all means do more, but these things add up. The more people that do something small, the better for our planet.
As a social entrepreneur, are there any other projects related to the environment you are also working on?
Kai: I’m focused on growing Cleanbodia at the moment and seeing what kind of sustainable impact we can have. That being said, I’m always looking for projects that I can bring value to.
Any words you would like to share for aspiring entrepreneurs who are passionate with innovation?
Kai: If you have a great idea that you think is just too big to do or not in your area of expertise, then stop thinking about it because you’ve already lost the battle. All it takes are small actionable steps to get you moving towards your idea, you can never just take one big stride to get there. Sometimes you will end up moving backwards, or stray away from your original goal. But that’s the point, those are the building blocks where you get the most value from and truly shape a thought into a physical creation. It’s easy to come up with ideas, the difficult part is stop talking about it and do something to make it happen.
You can visit Cleanbodia at http://www.cleanbodia.com/
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