Cambodia has been called “the Kingdom of black pepper production”, with Tbong Khmum province a major production hub despite the struggles the industry is currently facing.
Soeng Sopha, the general manager of Sela Pepper, a pepper processing and packaging firm based in the province, sat down with The Post’s Cheng Sokhorng to discuss the challenges to be overcome, the market and how to promote growth in the sector.
How does Sela pepper operate?
Sela Pepper in 2015 installed a modern processing facility with the capacity to produce 1.5 tonnes of pepper per hour. It is the first such facility in the Kingdom, with an investment of more than a $1 million.
We have full facilities, with a cleaning machine, a steam-steriliser and a laboratory. We further developed grinding and packing systems in 2017, and have built additional facilities so our pepper meets the standards required to be certified for the international market.
How do you grow the black pepper market?
To grow the market, we spent a lot of time building confidence and trust. We are trying to advertise and promote Cambodian black pepper in both local and international markets to make everybody know how good its taste – its aroma and spiciness – as well as its superior appearance and the limited use of chemicals, all of which exceed that of other region’s pepper industries.
So far we have reached the Indian, US, New Zealand, Taiwanese, Thai and German markets, with other destinations soon to come. What we mean by having “reached the markets” is that the quality of our black pepper has been accepted by the Ministry of Commerce, which has issued us a Certificate of Origin from Cambodia.
What challenges do you face?
There are a lot of challenges in this field, such as farm management, technical, pesticide and financial controls, as well as a limited awareness of how to produce quality black pepper.
Farmers’ knowledge on how to manage their farms in a systematic way is in short supply – they merely farm by imitating each other without the proper use of techniques, pesticides, fertilisers and water economisation.
They also face other challenges such as financial limitations – they become disappointed with their farms when they cannot give them high yields, all while market prices are decreasing.
Another challenge we face is limited awareness on the local market of the quality of our black pepper. This makes it difficult for us to obtain support from local consumers and supermarkets.
We are also producers – we face high production costs and the high cost of logistics and importing packaging, which increases the price of our products and makes it hard to compete with local and international markets.
How do you promote the sector if the market is facing a slowdown?
We are currently seeking to attend exhibitions overseas, and increase advertising on social media and billboards, et cetera, in the local and international markets, and we aim to obtain more black pepper quality certifications from new destination markets such as China to increase exports and build the brand and the market for Cambodian products.
We currently work with 600 farmers to promote the awareness of farming quality and the value of the market.
How have you promoted the pepper industry?
To ensure quality farming and secure demand, we set up the industrial-scale Sela Pepper Science and Technology Centre in Tbong Khmum province’s Memot district, which is involved in the research and development of the commodity, which is to be sold on the domestic as well as the foreign market.
The project will also help in promoting sustainable and climate-resilient farming techniques, and share knowledge with local farmers involved in cultivating black pepper, as well as help produce high quality pepper.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.