The habit of chewing betel nut among the middle-aged and elderly has faded dramatically in recent years and is rarely practiced now by young people. Now the areca palm mostly serves as a traditional symbolic offering in wedding ceremonies rather than as source of an item for daily consumption.
Betel nut or areca nut is the seed of the areca palm tree, which grows throughout East Africa, Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Pacific islands.
Betel nut has various chemical compounds present in it and one of them – arecoline – is similar to nicotine in its effect and addictive properties.
And like nicotine in chewing tobacco, arecoline is also a dangerous carcinogen, causing cancers of the mouth and throat in people who are frequent chewers of betel nut.
Although betel nut chewing has become less prevalent, the areca palm plants remain abundant in Cambodia and Hour Chhai Ngorn – one of the founders of Areca Cam – saw an opportunity in them.
Areca Cam is turning the areca leaf sheathes into spoons, boxes and plates as an environmentally-friendly alternative option to plastics.
Areca palms in Cambodia used to only be used for their nut. Older generations of Cambodians used to munch the betel leaves, betel nuts and tobacco because it was believed that chewing them would help to maintain good dental health by protecting them from toothaches and bad breath. The addictive nature of the plants and the link between chewing betel nut or tobacco and cancer wasn’t yet widely understood.
Sometimes people in the countryside served it to houseguests or offered it to monks at the pagoda and it also plays an important part in traditional wedding ceremonies.
In some traditional wedding ceremonies the bride and groom’s parents exchange betel leaf and customarily chew it to signify acceptance of each other’s children into their family, like a bonding ceremony of sorts.
But very few young Cambodians will chew on the betel leaves and nuts these days – most think of it as a dirty habit, and not a particularly attractive one.
Chhai Ngorn, the 30-year-old founder of Areca Cam as well as the president of environmental conservation organisation Creal Cambodia, came up with a different use for areca palms and one that is much more fascinating and creative than just chewing an addictive nut.
The areca leaf sheath can actually be turned into items we use daily such as spoons, forks, knives, plates, bowls, boxes and more.
“Having been involved with environmental work for years, we’ve been doing a lot of research into ideas about how to save our environment as well as how to explain the nature and severity of today’s environmental problems to people.
“We have known for a while now that plastic is one of the major causes of the destruction of our environment. To replace plastic, we’ve found some alternatives and areca leaf sheath is one of those,” Chhai Ngorn tells The Post.
Using areca to make common items instead of plastic is not only good for the environment, it’s also creating job opportunities for the people living near the production area.
With Covid devastating the economy and eliminating jobs, many people have stayed home. The young people and elders who have nothing else to do have gone out to harvest the areca leaf sheathes to sell to Areca Cam.
It is work that anyone can do and it’s a fairly easy job. All they need to do is collect and wash the leaf sheathes and dry them. Then they are put into a molding machine by Areca Cam to form them into different shapes.
“We initially started the production process in early 2021. We’re learning the demands of the market and figuring out the amount of areca leaf sheathes we may need to be a wholesale supplier. We have been letting our team test out our finished products by using them,” Chhai Ngorn says.
Chhai Ngorn says Areca Cam hasn’t launched their products on the market yet because they are still in the process of experimenting to find optimal production methods.
“From our own experiences, for these items after three or four months the product is still usable – even after seven or eight times being used. No problems are occurring at all.”
This is all part of the development process as they figure out the solution to various issues.
During the testing process Chhai Ngorn says the problem he faces is that some potential clients have been wary of the higher price of these items than plastics but he points out that it’s a natural product and it’s handmade that’s why it’s a little higher than plastic prices.
And while the items are biodegradable, that doesn’t mean they have to be instantly disposed of after one use.
“To keep the items longer lasting, it’s either going to be based on our manufacturing process or on the user’s care for the products,” he explains.
Another issue is building a supply chain and coming up with a strategy to keep the leaf sheathes in good quality.
“It was hard for us at first because it all depends on people. Sometimes they cooperate and sometimes they don’t. We tried to collect as much of it as we can but later on we found that it goes rotten too quickly when stored away. But if we don’t collect enough then it might be insufficient for the market demand,” he says.
The current method they use is that after drying the leaf sheathes they turn it into the finished products right away instead of storing it raw. That helps it last longer and keeps it from falling apart or rotting.
The production and supply site of Areca Cam is based out of Chhai Ngorn’s hometown in Kampong Cham province. Tbong Khmum province is another location where people are collecting the areca leaf sheathes for them.
Chhai Ngorn says that they chose Tbong Khmum province because it’s more convenient to supervise the business and it’s cheaper since the areca palm plants are easily found there.
He hopes to expand more into the nearby provinces and hopefully to place another molding machine in Siem Reap to start a second branch of Areca Cam.
Chhai Ngorn has experience with manufacturing eco-friendly products start eco-friendly products. Over two years ago he began making a variety of products from bamboo including bottles and cups and other items.
If everything goes smoothly, in the future he wants to use the areca palm leaf sheathes to make livestock feed as well.
Chhai Ngorn says there are two ways he hopes his environmental work will make a positive impact on Cambodian society.
The first is by pioneering these methods of production and working out how environmentally friendly products can be made and then after that comes gaining the support of the public and marketshare for the use of these innovative eco-friendly products.
“We are in the first stage and we are not yet worried about supplying the entire consumer market. We have a team of volunteers and a lot of interns. We are also a partner of the Ministry of Environment, so we will have some partners to sell wholesale to through them.
“But apart from that, there are also a lot of customers waiting to purchase these items once we have the production aspect worked out and most of them are restaurant owners, which is a really good sign,” Chhai Ngorn says.
Chhai Ngorn also has a message for all would-be Cambodian environmentalists: Talk is cheap and everyone needs to change their daily habits and the way they go about their lives – as well as find other ways to pitch-in and help – if they want to save the planet.
“I understand that consciousness about environmental protection is important, but I have a request to those who say they love the environment. Talking is not a very practical solution without any actions. Our team has gotten this idea going without any help or big funding. We just have passion for the work and we somehow manage to feed ourselves, but without the support of the Cambodian people it may be difficult for us to continue doing what we do,” Chhai Ngorn says.
For further information on Areca Cam including information on product purchases, donating or volunteering – contact them via their Facebook page @arecakhmer