Government to register local spice as a geographically indicated product, branding that is hoped to give it a niche in upscale international markets
Pepper corns drying at a farm in Kampong Trach district.
of pepper distributed
FarmLink hopes to send four tonnes of pepper abroad and sell the remaining two within Cambodia this year as it ramps up production of one of Cambodia’s most famous spices for high-end customers.
Once cherished by gourmets around the world, Kampot pepper is on the cusp of a second international debut that could open the door for more uniquely Cambodian products finding greater access to global markets.
The Commerce Ministry's Department of Intellectual Property plans by the end of the year to register Kampot pepper as a product with a geographical indicator, or GI, said Mao Thora, ministry undersecretary of state.
GIs allow products to gain brand recognition - a key element to niche marketing for items that might otherwise get lost in the increasingly internationalised food markets.
"The required report identifying the unique qualities of Kampot pepper is 90 percent complete," he told the Post Monday.
"Now, we are just waiting for the new government to form and approve the draft law to protect geographically indicated products before the bill goes to the National Assembly for approval," he added.
"After that, Kampot pepper will be [Cambodia's] first registered GI product."
The Kampot pepper industry, which at the beginning of the 20th century was exporting several thousand tonnes of pepper to restaurants abroad each year, was devastated by Cambodia's decades of political upheaval.
But this specific type of pepper has experienced a resurgence of popularity both at home and overseas, leaving it vulnerable to knockoffs and unscrupulous marketers.
"Currently vendors can lie and say they are selling Kampot pepper even if it is from another province because there is no identification system," Mao Thora said. "But when Kampot pepper gets GI status, it will be identified by a specific label," he added.
The result, he said, would be a windfall for the Kampot pepper industry, now comprised of a series of small farms strung across the southern province.
A Kampot pepper association is expected to be formed in October as the sector crystallises, said Prak Sereyvath, executive director of the agricultural development organisation CEDAC who also acts as a consultant for the Commerce Ministry's geographical indication initiative.
THAT DIFFERENCE IN QUALITY ALLOWS US TO MAKE A DISTINCTION IN PRICE.
"To register Kampot pepper as a GI product, it needs to have an association that facilitates relations between farmers and buyers," he said.
Foreign organisations like FarmLink have been instrumental in Kampot pepper's branding and the resurrection of the farms that produce it.
Started in 2006, the organisation sold 200 kilograms of pepper that year, mostly to local hotels, restaurants and gift shops, said FarmLink founder and CEO Jerome Benezech, adding that it doubled its sales in 2007.
Since last month, FarmLink has been exporting Kampot pepper to France and Denmark, and expects this year to distribute six tonnes - four of those internationally - which would represent a significant portion of the country's pepper output.
The small batch nature of the pepper, he said, was ideal for high-end markets: hotels, restaurants and specialised gourmet food shops.
"We target niche markets, not large-scale markets like supermarkets, because they match the quality of our product," he said.
"Kampot pepper has a special quality that allows it to stand out, even coming from a small market. It has a reputation for being one of the best peppers in the world. The big distinction is aroma and the lingering taste in your mouth," he said.
"We would not have done it for any product, for a product that has no value-added compared to the same product in Vietnam where it is cheaper to do business," Benezech added.
"When we have given it to Michelin-rated chefs, they consider it one of the best peppers," he said.
Good for farmers
FarmLink works with 120 small-scale farms in Kampot's Kampong Trach district that had previously had few buyers, let alone production contracts.
The farmers lacked the two key ingredients for pepper farming: water and fertiliser, according to Benezech.
"They were not getting high enough returns to afford the fertiliser they needed for high-quality product and productivity and they didn't have access to water," he said.
But with help from FarmLink and several other NGOs like Bridges Across Borders and the AusAID supported Cambodia Agriculture Value Change Programme, pepper farmers began to see the benefits of more structured production geared towards wealthy foreign buyers.
"There's been a big change in the farmers. Now they are very conscious of the quality of their product, which they didn't think much about a few years ago," said Benezech, explaining that organisation was necessary to guarantee marketable supplies and an effective quality control.
"That difference in quality allows us to make a distinction in price. [Farmers] are able to compete more strongly in the market."
50 grams for $8
Benezech said that Kampot pepper sells for four times the amount of other brands of Cambodian pepper.
A 50-gram bottle sells in Paris for US$8, while a one kilogram bag of pepper retails for $12 to $18 locally.
Sixty-year-old Nguon Ly, who farms pepper in his one hectare plot of land in Kampong Trach district, said his crop yields reached 500kg this year.
"Pepper now has a market since FarmLink started buying, and now farmers in my village have all flocked to growing pepper because of the high market price," he said.
This is an incentive for us to grow more," he said, adding that he is preparing to expand his operations.