A former alumnus of the Royal University of Agriculture (RUA), who went on to study agriculture in Israel, is using his skills to grow healthy, exotic vegetables for sale to supermarkets.
On Seyha began growing his vegetables in a 7m x 7m mesh greenhouse, high atop his house, in Chrang Chamres 2 commune of Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district. His rooftop garden now supplies many of the capital’s leading restaurants and supermarkets.
Hailing from Chamkar Bos village in Vall Sar commune of Kampong Speu province’s Samrong Tong district, he enrolled in engineering at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia (ITC) in Phnom Penh after graduating from high school.
To his immense regret – at the time – he found that engineering was not for him, and transferred to the RUA.
“People need to eat, so agriculture will always be a growing industry. Besides, if I couldn’t find work after I graduated, I know I could join my family back on their farm,” he told The Post.
After three years of study at the RUA’s Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, he graduated and was selected for a one-year course of study in Israel. When he returned to the Kingdom in 2011, he joined an agricultural NGO where he could employ his skills.
One day, he visited a Japanese restaurant and found the inspiration to start his own business, when he encountered a beetroot. He had never seen them gown in Cambodia.
“I asked the waiter where the beet came from and he told me that it was imported. I was aware of the health benefits of beets, and also that people were prepared to pay a premium for them. It occurred to me that if I could grow them locally, I would be keeping a certain amount of cash circulating in the local economy, rather than it being sent abroad,” he said.
He began to look for the appropriate seeds and began to experiment with growing small amounts of them, along with other exotic vegetables. Unfortunately, in 2014, Cambodians were less willing to experiment with vegetables that they were unfamiliar with. He found that only Lucky Supermarket was willing to stock his produce.
“Foreigners knew the vegetables I was growing, so I found that quite a few European restaurants were willing to order from me as well,” he said.
Seyha now grows sunflower sprouts, bean sprouts, rocket lettuce, cabbage sprouts, collard greens, and pink and Rambo beets, among others. His seeds are all imported.
He claims that his vegetables are more nutritious than local varieties, and that they have special health properties. For example, beets are rich in the type of anti-oxidants that some scientists believe fight cancer, and “hor lang tao” beans are high in fiber, which keeps the gut regular.
He said most of the sprout varieties he grows can be harvested just five to seven days after they are planted. Each day, he picks the mature vegetables and packages them neatly for the supermarkets. Each 100gm package sells for 5,800riel.
His produce is now stocked in supermarkets in Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot and Pursat, as well as the capital. Cambodians are gradually beginning to recognise his vegetables, and the more affluent among them are purchasing them regularly, perhaps because of their health benefits.
Seyha noted that the vegetables he grows are not the same varieties grown by Cambodian farmers, so he is not in direct competition with them.
His brand, City of Sprouts, has begun to earn wider recognition, and he has expanded his farm to include several terraced trays of sprouts on the ground level of his property – more than 200sqm of them. His vegetables are all grown in mesh greenhouses, with normal ventilation. He does not use fertilisers.
He said all of his seeds are imported and expensive, though he was unwilling to discuss the costs or profit margins, citing their commercially sensitive nature.
It is important to Seyha that his business provides employment opportunities to Cambodians, and he employs around 10 staff members to grow, pack and distribute his produce.
“In the future, I will share the knowledge I have with the younger generation so they can establish their own businesses,” he said.