It's not often I’m struck by the high level of hygiene while travelling through rural Cambodia. But standing in the Prek Khporp community shop, I find myself reflecting on how clean everything is around me.
All the surfaces, the floor, even the uniforms hanging on pegs attached to the wall, are pristine.
Clearly, hygiene is valued here.
“We wear masks, hair nets and uniforms when producing the rolls,” community director Chhoum Vanna, 46, says.
“We never open the doors, and we close everything, allowing only members of the community to enter the building.”
Inside the shop, established in October, 2008 with funding from the Asian Development Bank, Chhoum Vanna and six other women produce spring rolls (nems) and fish balls made from processed fish.
They’re not the only people in Prek Kporp who make nems. According to Chhoum Vanna, villagers have been making them since the 1980s.
“But the villagers don’t have the same [hygiene] standards as us,” Chhoum Vanna says. “We have different techniques.”
It’s not just the high level of hygiene that comes as a surprise. Buried within the processed fish meat is a whole chilli that gives these nems quite a kick. Along with a touch of salt and sugar, these are the only ingredients. The fish itself is caught in the Tonle Sap.
“We don’t sell large amounts because our production is small,” Chhoum Vanna says. “We don’t sell in Battambang because our nems are more expensive than those produced by local families.”
A packet of 10 nems sells for 5,000 riel, and a packet of fish balls for 1,300 riel. This is more than twice the price charged by local villagers, but the extra cost covers the higher standard of hygiene.
In 2009, the community borrowed US$500 from ACLEDA Bank to buy more fish and equipment.
“We didn’t dare borrow more money than that, because we were afraid we wouldn’t be able to pay it back,” she says.
“That’s why we borrowed only a small amount.”
Now Chhoum Vanna is contemplating a further loan – this time, to purchase equipment such as a refrigerator.
“We want to borrow more, but we want to be sure we will be able to pay it back,” she says.
Chhoum Vanna believes her community provides a lesson that other food producers would do well to heed.
“All producers should think about hygiene, because it can affect the health of consumers,” she says. “That can have an effect on all the people here.
“The government should educate everyone in this village to have the same standard of hygiene.”
Customers certainly seem to be getting the message. Initially, they would complain about the price of the nems, but recently the shop has experienced an increase in sales.
“Now we sell between 30kg and 50kg a day,” Chhoum Vanna says.
And there are no complaints about the quality of the product.
“We have never had a customer complain about stomach aches or diarrhoea or anything affecting their health,’’ Chhoum Vanna says.
“They just say the food is very good, and order more and more of it.”
INTERPRETER: RANN REUY