Avocados have never been a big part of the Khmer diet, making infrequent appearances in dessert dishes or drenched in condensed milk as a smoothie. But a small local market for the green pear-shaped fruit is forming, and experts say it could be a profitable crop for intrepid farmers.
Lor Reaksmey, spokesman of the Ministry of Agriculture, said avocados were previously imported in small quantities from Vietnam, but in recent years farmers in mountainous northeastern Cambodia have cultivated the trees on their land. A growing expat community and increasing local awareness of the purported health benefits of the fruit – which is rich in cholesterol-lowering fat and chock full of vitamins and antioxidants – have created a small but vibrant market.
“We’ve seen the amount of avocado cultivation growing because people are now understanding the benefits of the fruit, and it has started to become popular in markets,” he said. “However, avocado farming has not yet attracted investors and is still limited to small farms.”
Originally from what is now Mexico, avocados were first introduced to the region by the French in the 1940s. The fruit is widely grown in the Vietnamese highlands, where local varieties with their characteristic smooth green skin were developed.
According to Reaksmey, Vietnamese transplanted the first avocado trees to Cambodia during their campaign to expel the Khmer Rouge in 1979. A handful of local subsistence farmers continue to grow the fruit, and in recent years have found a market for their surplus.
Avocados flourish on well-drained soils in semi-tropical climates with a distinct cool season. The trees can grow over 10 metres in height and produce about 120 avocados a year, which like bananas mature on the tree but ripen only after picking.
According to Agriculture Ministry figures, avocado trees are grown on 40 hectares of smallholder farms, 30 of which are in Mondulkiri province and the remaining 10 in Ratanakkiri province.
Sreng Cheaheng, a Ratanakkiri provincial agriculture official and avocado farmer, said he started farming avocado trees on his land three years ago and now has over 100 trees occupying half a hectare. He said the trees yield about 3 tonnes of fruit a year, which he supplies to the local market for about $2 per kilo.
“Avocado farming just needs a bit of cold weather and you must pay attention to the trees when they are young, but after that is it and they bear fruit in the third year,” said.
Cheaheng said the market for avocado was growing, and profits were respectable. Dealers who pay his farm-gate price of $2 per kilo can easily sell it in local markets for up to double that price. He said compared to coffee, the other cash crop that grows well in the province’s cool mountain climate, avocados are easier to grow and have higher market demand.
“If you compare to coffee farming in the same area, coffee requires more attention and is harder to sell to the market, even if it costs less than avocados,” he said.
Locally grown avocados occasionally find their way to markets in the capital, but most supermarkets rely on Vietnamese stock. Imported varieties can fetch up to $2.50 each – pushing up the price of salads and guacamole.
At Super Duper supermarket in the capital’s Boueng Trabek neighbourhood, smooth green avocados imported from Vietnam sell at about $9 per kilo, while the pebbly skinned US-grown Hass variety which are smaller and reputedly tastier sell for $10 per kilo and have a two-week refrigerated shelf-life.
Store manager Terrance Van Vuuren said the store sells about 20 to 25 kilos of imported avocados a week, but despite high demand and potential profit, the store has not found a suitable Cambodian supplier.
“It would be good if the local market could supply us the avocado . . . as they are really popular and favoured in the market now,” he said.
Mexican chef Mario Galán, who purchases about 100 kilos of avocado per month for his authentic Mexican restaurant in Phnom Penh, said he experimented with local avocado varieties, but found the quality and taste inferior to Hass avocados imported from Australia and Mexico.
“We tried local avocados already but the quality is really different and produces a different flavour, and they’re oily,” he said.
Galan was confident that if local farmers grew Hass avocados they would find an eager market.
“It’s hard to grow the Hass variety of avocados in Cambodia, but if a local producer could make it happen, it would be good for the market and prices would come down,” he said. “It would probably also make a lot of income for the farmer.”