Young, Cambodian entrepreneur Tek Sophea, 29, says he hopes to expand his business – a farm growing seven international varieties of lettuce – by gaining official organic certification while persuading the domestic market that fertiliser-free salad is the financial future.
THE increasing international demand for organic vegetables persuaded 29-year-old entrepreneur Tek Sophea to investigate the Cambodian market for local possibilities.
In January, after a year of market research, he invested US$30,000 of his own money and set up the Green Organic Farm.
The farm currently grows seven types of lettuce and is based on 3 hectares of land in Kean Svay district in Kandal province near Phnom Penh.
The business started with 10 staff members, but Tek Sophea has since added seven.
His mission is, unsurprisingly, to convince Cambodia that organically grown produce is better than that which uses pesticides. In marketing-speak, it is his unique selling proposition, or USP.
"I want the Cambodian people to use organic products for their salads since they don't use chemicals," he says. "Importers supplying Cambodia's markets bring in vegetables from Vietnam and Thailand that have been grown using pesticides."
Tek Sophea learned his trade from personal research and with the help of a friend. He says it is not easy to grow vegetables organically, and that it is a job requiring determination and focus every day.
He admits that his young business lacks sophisticated technical and marketing skills, but says that over time the quality of its produce will improve, as will the number of clients.
I am hoping that by next year I will be able to sell 1,000 kilograms a day.
Another aspect of his marketing programme is to gain organic certification for his produce. Tek Sophea says the Cambodian Organic Agriculture Organisation (COrAA) visited his farm recently to assess his crop.
COrAA is a body set up by the government, NGOs and farmers to promote organic farming in Cambodia.
COrAA assessed that his crop is chemical-free, Tek Sophea said, and he hopes he will get organic accreditation by next month.
Green Organic Farm currently produces up to 250 kilograms of lettuce daily at a wholesale cost to his clients of around 2,500 riels ($0.60) per kilogram. Almost all is sold to clients in Phnom Penh.
"I am hoping that by next year I will be able to sell 1,000 kilograms a day - we just need to find more markets," he says.
The volumes he grows require him to import three kilograms of seed per month. The seven seed varieties he brings in all come from New Zealand.
The monthly cost of $400 for seed allows him to grow Romaine, Iceberg, Tango, LoLo Rossa, Danyelle Red, Salad Bowl and Blise. The varieties take between four and six weeks from planting to harvesting.
Once harvested, the lettuces are delivered daily to clients in Phnom Penh, ranging from Lucky Supermarket to Topaz Restaurant and the Champs Elysees Hotel. Other clients include local markets, and clubs, shops and hotels.
But the varied needs of potential clients mean that some decide against using his business.
"The reason is that we just didn't have enough quantity to meet the requirements of some clients, such as hotels, so we lost their trade," he explains. "They wanted to order several kinds of lettuce every day. If we had been able to deliver that, then they would have signed."
Despite current supply problems, Tek Sophea says expansion plans mean his business should be able to meet those demands by next year.
He is looking to increase the area under cultivation from 3 hectares to 10, and add other organic vegetables to his offering.
"That expansion will also ensure we are more profitable," he says, adding that he expects to be able to sell as much as 1.5 tonnes of lettuce and other vegetables daily.
That will also mean taking on more staff members, which is more of an undertaking than for most businesses.
Tek Sophea pays not just their salaries of between $70 and $150 a month, but also funds further education, including school or university fees, to improve their knowledge.
"I want them to go to school and university because I am Khmer and I want to help my people," he says.