Despite Cambodia’s cultural and historical ties to silk production, the Kingdom now relies heavily on imports for the production of its finished silk products. The Post’s Hor Kimsay sat down with Mey Kalyan, chairman of the Board of Directors at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), to discuss plans for a new Silk Research Centre and the university’s effort to revive the silk-producing industry in Cambodia.
How would you describe the current status of Cambodian silk production?
Today we have silk products, but we do not have a complete production line in Cambodia. Most of the work we do here is just weaving and colouring.
We have farmers who feed the silkworms, and we follow our ancestral traditions – we do not have a breeding centre, which would allow us to produce silk at a faster pace. If we feed 100 silkworms by hand, as our ancestral technique requires, the death rate of the silkworms can be up to 80 percent.
Therefore, we lack a steady supply of silk and need to import. We have imported nearly 400 tonnes of silk, spending more than $30 million.
What is the purpose and the significance of the initiative to establish the Silk Research Centre at RUPP?
Our goal is to promote finished silk products made entirely in Cambodia, and the centre will help us achieve this goal.
We wanted to create a professional research centre for silk farmers, where they could be supplied with silkworms that produce high-quality silk, and where they could be connected to researchers for the benefit of their crops.
The centre has coordinated with farmers’ associations, and if farmers encounter sick worms, a university team will study the problem and find a solution.
What does the RUPP research and development project entail?
Members of the university’s faculty of engineering have designed the silk centre and laboratory for us, while the biology department is helping improve breeding techniques for silkworms and fine-tuning methods of extracting silkworm proteins for use in other products, like shampoo.
Some faculty associations are helping establish links to farmers, and we have a marketing team that is focused on connecting the silk-making community to the market. We are taking a holistic approach and looking at improving both production and marketing, which I think is the right thing to do.
How would increased silk production benefit the economy?
It provides farmers with greater profits. According to a study, farmers can earn more cash from growing silkworms and producing silk than they can from planting rice crops. In a hectare of land, a silkworm grower can produce a batch of silkworms at least five times a year, earning about $5,000 annually. Silk not only offers economic benefits, but helps to promote the Cambodian culture.
How far along are you on building the centre and implementing your plans to promote silk production in Cambodia?
We have already started building the centre, and recently received aid from Japan amounting to over $90,000 to help complete the construction. We also have 11 hectares of land in Kampong Speu province where we have started growing mulberry plants, which can be fed to future batches of silkworms. We are also trying to expand these types of projects to other target provinces.
When do you expect Cambodia will have a full silk production line of its own?
We need to produce at least 400 tonnes of silk per year, so we need at least 5,000 hectares of mulberry plants. This means that we have to wait until the farmers contact us to say they are interested in partnering with us. It may take a long time, but we need to continue to promote this idea and let farmers know this can be very profitable for them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.