This week, business reporter Eddie Morton interviews Jacques Marcille, the CEO of Eau Kulen, which brands itself as Cambodia’s first locally sourced bottled mineral water. After launching in Siem Reap province early last year, the new entrant to a competitive market mostly populated by overseas brands has struggled to compete on prices. A 1.5-litre bottle of Eau Kulen costs around 80 cents, compared to around 50 cents for non-mineral water. Marcille talked to the Post about what distinguishes Eau Kulen from the pack, and the company’s forward-looking strategy.
Bottled water brands fill the shelves at Lucky supermarket and other shops. Are all of them imported, and is there stiff competition over pricing?
There is a lot of competition, especially in larger supermarkets, with foreign brands mostly imported from Europe and some from Vietnam and Thailand. There are also some local brands, which are not natural mineral water. They are instead branded as “pure drinking water”, and don’t have any natural minerals in them at all.
Are people getting what they pay for, or are they being misled?
Our competitors are the imported brands of mineral water, who, admittedly, do usually make a good product. That said, no one is actually better than our locally made Eau Kulen in terms of its mineral composition. Some foreign brands sell sparkling water, with natural or added carbon dioxide. We are not producing sparkling yet. I personally find that selling a 1.5-litre bottle of mineral water for more than $2 per bottle is very, very expensive, and frankly ridiculous.
What kind of work went into setting up your company?
The first difficulty was to obtain precise geological maps to understand the environment of Mount Kulen, which is located in Siem Reap province. Secondly, we met difficulties finding a company that was able to drill through the deep layers of sandstone, as it took very specific and expensive equipment to do so. All told, it took me approximately one year to find the Eau Kulen spring. We had help though, from people with knowledge of the region, including Pierre Gubri from the NGO Water for All in Cambodia, and some geologist friends. The initial idea, however, to source a Cambodian mineral water came from Bernard Forey, the man behind Vietnam’s La Vie natural mineral water.
What about costs?
In Europe, to have the right to be called “natural mineral water” you need to bottle the water at the source itself and to produce your bottles in the bottling plant. As such, our facility, which requires a lot of energy in order to manufacture our own bottles, is at the foot of Mount Kulen. Any investment in such an isolated area will inevitably cost more. The investment is from parent company Kulara Water, the company producing Eau Kulen, and amounts to a little more than $8 million.
How has Kulen water been selling?
Admittedly, sales could probably have been faster, but it is progressing. We are targeting the Cambodian local market at first, with the aim of educating people on the health benefits of drinking natural mineral water rather than pure drinking water. Only a few people understand the actual health benefits. They know that all chemical reactions in the body require minerals to function properly and that minerals found in water are more easily absorbed than those found in food.
Is expansion in the cards?
Our aim is to become the number one natural mineral water brand in Cambodia, and even export to close countries. Obviously, there are more untapped springs in Cambodia, but many of these springs are not mineralised. Some have very acidic PH levels.
Could mineral water production become a bigger industry here?
It must become bigger. While everybody is speaking about saving the planet and lowering carbon dioxide emissions, is it not totally ridiculous to have full containers of water travelling on cargo boats halfway around the world? It is energy consuming, and I hope this message will be understood here in Cambodia.
How much money is spent on bottled water annually here?
I do not have any exact figure, but a lot of water is used. The country is hot, very hot, and people need to drink. At present, the biggest market here is the production of pure drinking water – without minerals.
The market for mineral water here is still limited as it comes at a higher cost. However, people drinking pure drinking water should understand that it takes nearly twice as much pure drinking water than mineral water to actually quench their thirst. That is because water without minerals is very quickly expelled by the body.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity