PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - “Go straight past three partially demolished graffiti-ed squatter buildings… look for the third yellow accordian-styled gate, which will also have heaps of bagged coconut shells and our team in blue uniforms working in the front,” instructed Robert Esposito, founder of Coco Khmer.
There we were, in Cambodia, on our way to visit Coco Khmer’s production facility on the fringes of what was previously Boeng Kak Lake, and had since been paved over for an urban development project. We had met Robert two days prior, during the first meeting for the Coconut Working Group, part of the Cambodia Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture – one of the Country Partnerships supported by Grow Asia – and Robert had kindly invited us to visit his facility.
Coco Khmer is a Cambodian social enterprise that produces high quality virgin coconut oil (VCO) and coconut-based skincare products using traditional hand-pressed methods. Through training and employment, Coco Khmer empowers marginalized Cambodians and creates sustainable livelihoods for its 17 staff, majority of whom are women. With its small- scale production system, Coco Khmer, which also pays a premium for mature coconuts to smallholder farmers in its supply chain, hopes to demonstrate and convince rural communities and farmers of the potential value in coconut processing.
It was an eye-opening experience as Robert walked us through the entire process of VCO production – from de-husking as workers remove the protective outer layer of the coconut; through grating, squeezing, filtration, drying; and finally, to packaging. Throughout the process, there are valuable by-products that can potentially be further processed and monetized. The coconut husk could be processed and rubberized into hypoallergenic material; coconut water could be packaged and sold; coconut flesh could be made into flour and animal feed.
These are significant opportunities that can be leveraged to enhance value creation as Coco Khmer expands its operational capacity, and hopes to replicate its micro-processing facilities in other parts of Cambodia.
Smallholder farmers have a tremendous potential to capture the value in Cambodia’s nascent coconut industry. Based on a market study, there are more than 10 million coconut trees in Cambodia, majority of which are grown on smallholder land plots. During the Coconut Working Group meeting, members discussed key challenges around coconut supply in Cambodia, including farmers’ lack of understanding around the potential value of coconut products and their immediate cashflow needs. As a result, many coconut farmers sell their coconuts prematurely, despite the fact that leaving the coconuts on the trees for five months longer would allow them to be sold for up to five times the price. This means that companies such as Coco Khmer have to resort to meeting their supply needs from Vietnam, representing lost opportunities for smallholder Cambodian farmers.
Conversations such as these and input from organizations like Coco Khmer are helping to determine the directions that Working Groups are taking in Grow Asia’s various country partnerships. Going forward, Grow Asia and our Working Group partners in Cambodia will be exploring priority issues, pilot approaches and bringing together prospective partners to address the various challenges and opportunities in each of the priority crops. It is truly an exciting period for us at Grow Asia as the Cambodian Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture kicks off its activities.
Shang Hui Chia
Analyst, Grow Asia