We recently spoke with Sotheavy AT, the Founder of Think Plastic, a hugely popular digital environmental advocacy campaign working to reduce plastic waste and inspire action from citizens across Cambodia. (She’s also the former Senior Innovation Program Manager for the DAI-led Development Innovations, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and a consultant on DAI projects across Southeast Asia.) Think Plastic started small, with two- to three-minute videos in 2019, and has grown rapidly to reach more than 4 million Cambodians in just one year—almost 25 percent of the population of the country. As more businesses, organizations, and citizens go online around the world in the COVID-19 era, we have seen evidence of how well-designed and well-executed online campaigns can rapidly advance development outcomes. Think Plastic has been widely recognized for its success by the Royal Government of Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment and the Women of the Future Southeast Asia and is now a well-known brand across the country. This is an excerpt from that interview.
KATE: Hi Sotheavy! First, tell our readers about Think Plastic. When did you get started? What problem were you trying to address in Cambodia?
SOTHEAVY: Back in 2019, I was on a coastal holiday from my job on the Development Innovations project. It was Women Rights Day—and I wanted to be out in nature (I love everything to be green!) I was walking along the beach in Kep and I saw massive piles of plastic trash on the beach and floating in the ocean. That day, I knew I needed to use my voice to address this issue. I wanted to move fast, so I shot and released videos on Facebook that same day. I officially launched the campaign the next day.
My vision is that Cambodians will be more mindful of single-use plastic. I want to see them actively reduce the use of this plastic and use more reusable items in their daily lives and businesses.
Photo courtesy of Sotheavy AT.
KATE: How did you know the campaign was “working” and spurring Cambodians to act against single-use plastic? How are you measuring success?
SOTHEAVY: Good question! I think a lot of people measure campaign success by Facebook followers alone. I wanted more than that—I wanted to engage the audience and see how I could inspire action. One way I measure success is by the massive amount of people that post proof of their own “green action” on the page, such as using reusable bottles or tote bags at the market. I was truly surprised by how quickly this happened as the campaign grew.
Photo courtesy of Sotheavy AT.
KATE: What have you learned while running this campaign? How has your approach changed over the last 18 months?
SOTHEAVY: I have learned a lot! When I first launched the campaign, I did not really know if people were going to care about this problem. So I started with just a few videos to test that hypothesis. It turns out that people do care! Over and over again, I was hearing: ‘I have the same idea as you, but I don’t know how to address this problem! I am so happy that you are running this campaign.’ So people DO care—check!
First, I tried to let people know about the problem of single-use plastic and tried to tell stories to help them relate. Next, I started to suggest solutions that people can try personally. I think it is really important to give people simple solutions so that they don’t feel that only superheroes can save the world!
I am a learning type of person, so wherever I go, I observe, I listen to people and I ask people questions. I am always curious about the way people deal with plastic in their everyday lives and in their businesses—and I listen hard to try to understand if they have any concerns that Think Plastic can address. I use this data to adapt and drive the campaign to fit their needs.
Raising awareness can be easy (not always!), but behavior change requires more time and energy. Over the past 18 months, I produced more than 100 videos highlighting single-use plastic problems and solutions—but with common themes. These days, content floods social media feeds. In campaigns, you need to repeat key messages to keep the momentum with the audience and engage them in as many ways possible, which ultimately can lead to behavior change.
KATE: How do partnerships fit into your campaign? How is the campaign funded?
SOTHEAVY: Partnerships are important for Think Plastic—we have collaborated with many development partners, NGOs, and environmental networks across Cambodia. We crosspost content—especially related to environmental advocacy—and this has helped us grow our networks and build trust. Many actors in Cambodia use their platforms only to share their own content—not others’ content in their sector or ecosystem. I think this is a missed opportunity. We also used this collaborative approach for the DAI Online Safety campaign, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, in mid-2020.
I fund Think Plastic as part of my commitment to a greener Cambodia. It has allowed me to stay very agile and adapt super quickly. For my other campaigns like Stay Home, a campaign focused on giving Cambodians trusted information and helping to fight fake news about COVID-19, I got funding from development actors and sponsorships to create individual videos as part of the campaign. I also provide consulting services to a wide range of clients, (including DAI!) as a videographer, campaign manager, strategist, and trainer.
KATE: I have heard that a lot of people on the street (and on Facebook Messenger) tell you they want to run similar campaigns to advocate for issues they care about. What advice do you have for them?
SOTHEAVY: So many young Cambodians are interested in using the power of social media and video storytelling to advocate for the future, especially since more than 60 percent of the population uses Facebook. Over the last year, many development organizations have hired me to develop individual campaign-focused training courses for their partners and beneficiaries—there is a massive demand for this kind of training and coaching.
My advice is to focus on: 1) what your users want, 2) how to keep them engaged, 3) the quality of your content and messaging. Also, pair up with others who are working on similar issues in the sector. You aren’t the only one addressing this problem! We are much more powerful when we come together to amplify messages about a greener Cambodia!
Photo courtesy of Sotheavy AT.
KATE: What else are you working on?
SOTHEAVY: I’m a busy bee! In addition to the Stay Home and Online Safety campaigns, I work with SHE Investments to provide rapid response training to dozens of women entrepreneurs after COVID-19 affected their businesses.
KATE: What is next for Think Plastic in 2021?
SOTHEAVY: In the first 18 months, I was focused on individual citizens across the country. Next, I want to grow the campaign and focus on decision-makers.
Some Cambodians talk about wanting to use reusable water bottles, but they are worried about how to get clean water at their workplace or in the field. This stops them from using reusable water bottles, so they go with single-use plastic. Other people tell me—’Well, this event just served plastic water bottles, so I used them. It was free.’ So, I want to help institutions grow green seeds! Many organizations want to go green, but don’t always know how to make it work within their own policies and systems. I want to appeal to the people in charge of procurement—why not mandate that the suppliers use glasses and water jugs instead of small plastic bottles? We need to build in the green mentality at all levels.