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A man climbs a palm tree to collect sap at a Kampong Thom province palm sugar plantation in 2013.
A man climbs a palm tree to collect sap at a Kampong Thom province palm sugar plantation in 2013. Hong Menea

Palm farmers eye a sweet deal

Palm sugar producers in Kampong Speu province say they are ready to scale up and meet demand as global consumer goods giant Unilever looks to source palm sugar for its products from the Cambodian market.

Prak Sereywath, president of the Cambodia Institute for Research and Rural Development, said the potential supply deal could catapult the niche sugar product into a mainstream export item.

“Unilever has shown interest in purchasing palm sugar from Cambodia, and plans to buy 2,000 tonnes a year,” he said yesterday. “However, negotiations are continuing and we still need to agree on a price, the quality and standards.”

Sam Saroeun, president of the Kampong Speu Palm Sugar Promotion Association (KPSA), the country’s largest independent body for palm sugar producers, said he met representatives of Unilever Cambodia last week to discuss the potential supply deal.

“Unilever wants to buy 2,000 tonnes of palm sugar from us a year, and asked us to select a company that will collect the sugar and work with them,” he said.

He said KPSA has nominated the Kampong Speu Palm Tree Agricultural Cooperative, whose 116 members tend over 1.2 million palm trees, to discuss the plan further.

While Kampong Speu is not the only Cambodian province where palm sugar is produced, some of its production carries the prestigious Geographical Indication (GI) status, which ensures a higher market value. The market price for this premium organic palm sugar is currently around $1,400 per tonne, about 50 per cent more than its local non-GI counterpart.

KPSA supplied about 250 tonnes of GI palm sugar to the market this year, according to Saroeun, though its members have the potential to produce 400 tonnes. He added that if all the province’s producers pitched in they could collectively supply between 2,000 and 3,500 tonnes of palm sugar a year – sufficient to fill Unilever’s needs.

According to Sereywath, the lack of GI certification should not pose a challenge, as Unilever’s quality standards would most likely concern the techniques used to process the sugar, which can easily be adjusted.

“We need to see [Unilever’s] standard product’s criteria from them first, but I think it would not take time or be difficult to transform from traditional palm processing to their processing standard, as the focus is on hygiene,” he said.

A representative from Unilever Cambodia, who declined to be named, confirmed yesterday that the company was looking to source palm sugar from Cambodia, but stressed that the size of the purchase order had not been decided.

“We are now still studying and testing the product, and we cannot confirm the amount that we will need,” the representative said, adding that the company did not want to “spoil the market” by raising expectations on the deal.

Unilever has not disclosed which products the palm sugar would be used in. However, the British-Dutch multinational owns a number of major food and beverage brands, including Hellman’s mayonnaise, Knorr soups and sauces, and Lipton ice tea. It is also the world’s biggest ice cream manufacturer, producing ice cream under the Breyer’s and Ben & Jerry’s brands, and for its flagship Heartbrand line.

Ker Monthivuth, a specialist on plant hygiene standards at the Ministry of Agriculture, said local palm sugar producers were already supplying high-quality palm sugar for export.

“Our agricultural production is exported to international markets and is well known because of its quality and standard,” he said.“It would not be difficult to meet [Unilever’s] standards criteria,” he added.

“We guide farmers on the proper skills and techniques, and I believe our product has the potential to meet the standards demanded.”

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