Friends-International, where social and business worlds build futures together

By James Sutherland, International Communications Coordinator with Friends-International. He and his team bring news on Friends-International and its work to every part of the globe, encouraging us all to work together to build futures for marginalised youth.

Friends-International is a social enterprise that started in August 1994 in Phnom Penh (Cambodia) in response to the lack of services for street children and youth. We adopt the approach of reintegrating marginalised children and young people into society as productive citizens. This encompasses a multiplicity of services and programmes with an overarching child rights and child protection basis, and directly impacts upon 50,000 marginalised children a year.

The flagship programme in Phnom Penh, called Mith Samlanh (‘Friends’ in Cambodian), is now a best practices programme where the social and business methodologies are tried and tested, and then rolled out to their other programmes and those of partners. Although local staff implement the programmes, technical support comes from a dedicated team of international specialists that ensure high levels of quality in the work, whether it is social work or vocational training. For example, hospitality training comprises of three levels, going from learning the basics of hygiene up to kitchen and waiting skills, with all tuition supported by an internationally experienced foreign chef as a technical advisor. Quality in service and customer satisfaction are inherent in the training and the Friends Restaurant has gained international recognition for their efforts, with students, many of whom are former street children, graduating to jobs at the high end of the catering and hospitality trades.


Since 1999, Friends-International has been developing a range of interlinked programmes around the world, including (but not limited to):

    FRIENDS PROGRAMMES: best practice programmes that provide the highest standards of services to marginalised urban children and youth, their families and their communities and provides effective working models for partners.

    CYTI ALLIANCE: a network of organisations that provide services to marginalised urban children and youth, their families and their communities.

    CHILDSAFE NETWORK: a network of individuals and organisations from all tiers of society and the international community who protect children and youth from all forms of abuse.

    FRIENDS SOCIAL BUSINESSES: social business initiative that ensures Friends-International’s financial sustainability and reduces donor-dependency.

What sets Friends-International apart from others who work with street kids and their families is the pioneering blend of social work and business that powers the organisation. Their methodologies are truly holistic, working with children and families to provide direct support where and when it is most needed, on the streets and in vulnerable communities, then supporting children and young people back into school or into vocational training leading to employment.

The Friends model sees the various vocational trainings offered run as businesses, so ‘real world’ hands-on experience is gained by trainees, whilst profits go to sustaining the social support and multiple services the organisation offers to them and their families. This fosters sustainability in the organisation and reduces donor dependency, crucial in a time when funding for long term social development initiatives is becoming harder to source.

Replicability is at the heart of Friends-International.

The success of their first hospitality training restaurant in Phnom Penh has led to two others opening in the city, and one in Vientiane, Lao PDR. Now the organisation is looking to scale this into other geographical areas using a franchised approach to offer Training for Employment and Entrepreneurship (TREE).

Thematically, the restaurants focus on Food, Culture and Futures. The TREE project presents the Friends model as a strong social leverage tool with localised tastes and social support for its young trainees. The restaurants research and serve long forgotten recipes, giving young people a renewed sense of identity and reviving local culture and traditions. This model not reflects a standardised taste, as is the case in most franchises, but rather a standardised quality with tastes unique to the location. Along with the franchise, Friends-International also brings a host of social services aimed at providing a complete care package for the trainees that include emotional, health and other rights based care. This is provided by the Friends-International offices and partners from other NGO’s and the local authorities and government.

Plans are already well established for developing another of these restaurants in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where Friends-International has been running a hospitality (cooking and serving) vocational training course since 2008, building a team of trainers who already provide training to an average of 20 youths per year. These are young people who cannot access quality vocational training in existing training centres due to their need for additional parallel support services – a consequence of abuse or multiple stresses they have already experienced, or for other reasons such as low education levels, extreme marginalisation or social stigma.

Scaling does however mean that start-up funding is needed. The establishment of the restaurant and initial operations will require an estimated $200,000 investment of which Friends-International have currently secured $50,000 through one of their donors. The restaurant is expected to be financially sustainable by mid 2013 and will contribute to cover 20% of Friends-International’s child protection project expenses in Siem Reap from 2014. What is particularly exciting is that an anonymous donor has agreed to match fund dollar for dollar donations toward the full target. This means that if $75,000 can be raised in the next six months, he will double that to meet the target. Details on how to donate can be found below, along with further contact information to learn more about the work of Friends-International, and how you or your organisation can play a real part in ‘Together, building futures.’

To make a donation to the restaurant vocational training project which will be matched dollar for dollar, please visit and enter 1+1 in the project box (before 29 February 2012).

‘Friends – the beginning’

On a dark night in Phnom Penh in 1994 a young French man who was spending what he thought was his last night in the city literally stumbled over a group of children sleeping rough in the streets. His shock and disgust at what he saw changed his life and those of the children forever. He went on to form the organisation ‘Friends-International’, dedicated to bringing children like those he had seen back from the margins of society and supporting them into education and training to enable them to become active and productive citizens of their country.

17 years on, and Sebastien Marot is still there in Phnom Penh, at the helm of that same organisation whose programmes now reach out across South East Asia and beyond, but whose goal remains the same, summed up in their tagline – ‘Together, building futures’. His efforts with Friends-International have earned numerous awards and accolades over those years, including The Schwab Foundation’s “Social Entrepreneur of the year (Asia)” (2009), the “Skoll Foundation Award for Social Entrepreneurship” (2007) and the Order of Australia for “Service to Humanity” (Member of the Order 2002).

‘My vision to helping children is still based on the elimination of pity charity and the ‘street child’ image that is perpetuated by tourists and communities; seeking instead to uplift children with dignity, reintegrating them back into society as productive citizens and changing behavioral attitudes towards them.’