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A store attendant arranges fresh produce in a display fridge yesterday at the Khmer Cooperative Organic shop in Phnom Penh.
A store attendant arranges fresh produce in a display fridge yesterday at the Khmer Cooperative Organic shop in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Organics finding a following

As Phnom Penh sees a sprouting of organic grocery stores across the city, the newest entrant in the market says it will go a step further and sell chemical-free pesticides to farmers to encourage the growing trend of organic products and farming techniques.

The Eco-Agri Centre (EAC), which opened yesterday in the capital’s Boeung Keng Kang 1 neighbourhood, will look to build a network of organic suppliers and strengthen the value chain needed to provide and promote such products.

Ieng Sotheara, EAC’s founder, said that going into the project he knew that organic produce was costlier than fruits and vegetables that are grown using chemicals. However, he said, the only way to lower the cost was to push for mass production.

“We are not targeting the sale of high-priced products, but instead are targeting the lowering of the cost of production,” Sotheara said.

Being a doctor himself, Sotheara said he also wanted to provide consumers with a healthy option, given that he had witnessed firsthand the adverse side effects of eating chemically treated vegetables.

“[Food] without chemicals is a kind of preventive measure for our bodies, so I had to go this way,” he said.

The EAC is a joint initiative of the development agency German International Cooperation Cambodia (GIZ Cambodia) and the Khmer Organic Cooperative.

Such initiatives will not only increase the availability of organic produce, but also build the entire value chain from the ground up, said Claudius Bredehoft, the national project coordinator of the ASEAN Sustainable Agrifood Systems project.

“Each farmer delivering his own little packages of vegetables to Phnom Penh is not very effective,” he said. “We support farmers to group themselves together and organise the production and transport jointly, which will make [the sector] stronger.”

Mey Kalyan, senior adviser to the Supreme National Economic Council and the lead on a government-backed project to increase local vegetable farming, said that initiatives that support and increase growth of the vegetable sector were welcomed. However, he said Cambodian consumers are still more likely to be price-sensitive rather than look for quality.

“Richer countries talk about organic and non-organic, but in this market there is no differentiation between the two,” he said. “Even if you produce organic, if the consumers do not get a good price then it’s a problem.”

However, Aurelien Cadot, general manager of Natural Garden, which opened in 2008 and was one of the first stores to provide organic produce, said over the years his business had seen an increasing number of Cambodian customers embrace organic produce.

“Before we had more expats but now we have more and more Khmer customers because there is more information about [organic produce],” he said.

“There is more information about the way vegetables are grown and there are also more cases of people getting sick within a short time after eating produce grown with pesticides, and people have started to notice,” he said. “Even if it is a bit more expensive they are willing to pay the difference for having safe products.”

He added that prices for organic products are 20 to 30 per cent higher than their non-organic counterparts.

Nhem Sovannary, an organic farmer in Takeo province’s Tram Kok district, said her family’s health was one of the reasons she decided to grow organic produce, but that it also gave her good returns.

“It is important for my family’s health because we also consume the vegetables we farm,” she said. “We sell our vegetables at a higher cost, which is fair because we have invested a lot more in our farm to go organic.”

Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng

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