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Singaporean quits corporate life to start own Kampot pepper farm

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Lai Poon Piau at his Kampot pepper farm. HONG SPICES/THE STRAITS TIMES

Singaporean quits corporate life to start own Kampot pepper farm

The lack of land in Singapore has led to a few Singaporeans going abroad to set up farms. And they are not going for your average food products.

Among them is Hong Spices, which sells Kampot pepper from Cambodia, regarded as one of the finest peppers in the world.

Lai Poon Piau, 54, was on the fast track early in his career working for an oil and gas company, but that did not make him complacent.

“One of the drawbacks of corporate life is that as you get older, you feel vulnerable and question whether you are getting stale.

“Although I wasn’t affected, it wasn’t a comfortable situation because I saw seniors being let go and the same thing could happen to me.”

A seed was planted in his mind that he should take his future into his own hands.

Even as he moved to other jobs with a semi-conductor company and the civil service, the idea continued to grow.

His grandfather was a rubber and palm oil plantation owner in Malaysia, which he said was his reason for wanting to be a landowner.

Then in his 40s, Lai, who was born in Melaka but is now a Singaporean, considered buying agricultural land in Malaysia but found it too expensive.

At the time, Enterprise Singapore was running business missions outside Singapore and he joined some to countries around the region.

He settled on Cambodia for two reasons. “First is that they have the same rules for foreign and local businesses.

“Second is that my war chest is enough to make a difference there. Whereas in another country such as Vietnam, for a small player like me, my funds would evaporate very quickly and I would be left with nothing.”

He said he spent about $200,000 buying about 100ha of land in Kampot province over more than six years.

It took so long because most of the land in Cambodia is owned in small plots of under 1ha and he had to wait for the owners to sell.

“I did not want to go the landgrabbing route where you make friends with a local strongman and he would pay and clear everybody out.”

So he had to be patient and ended up with land that is “roughly together but not continuous”.

He picked Kampot because he thought it was a strategic location in the southern part of Cambodia near ports such as Sihanoukville and the capital city Phnom Penh.

What he did not realise then was that it is also famous for its pepper, which is highly prized by Europeans.

Though there were existing pepper farms there, “sometimes you see things and don’t notice them”, he said.

His original intention was to plant food crops, but to “make it a business, you need thousands of hectares and not just 100ha”.

So he switched to the idea of planting cash crops and pepper “presented itself”.

He found that what makes Kampot different from other pepper growing areas is that the soil there is harsh for growing pepper and there can be long periods without rain.

Special flavour

“It needs some tending and human intervention to keep the vines healthy, but it’s still always in a slightly stressed condition. It’s that harshness that gives the pepper that special flavour.”

Kampot pepper is known for being less spicy than other peppers but is more aromatic and lingers on the palate.

Lai, who spends at least a week every month on his farm, planted his first pepper vines in 2013.

The first harvest was in 2017 because the plants need to be at least four years old to produce good quality berries.

Now, he harvests up to 10 tonnes of pepper a year. At about $20 per kilogramme, that works out to about $200,000 of farm revenue, but he said that hardly covers costs.

Most of that is sold to other pepper producers who bottle the spice under their own brands. Lai keeps about 380kg which he sells under his own Hong Spices label. That is enough for more than 4,000 canisters.

Hong Spices sells three types of pepper. Black pepper, which comes from green berries that are processed and dried, accounts for about 70 per cent of sales.

Red pepper is from ripened berries and accounts for 20 per cent, while white pepper, which is the core of the berry with the pulp removed, makes up the rest.

These are sold in places such as Culina @ Dempsey, Gourmet Grocery in Takashimaya and the Sprmrkt eateries, as well as on websites such as RedMart, which sells the 80g canister of black pepper for $13.

In comparison, another well-known brand of black pepper costs about $6 for 50g.

Lai is also creating a new market for the pepper by selling it to more unconventional users.

His Kampot pepper is one of the aromatics in the local Tanglin Gin and he is talking to microbreweries as well.

He hopes to create a network for his product in countries such as Japan and China next.

He said: “Asians pay top dollar for meat, why can’t we pay top dollar for pepper? We buy the cheapest pepper and put it on an expensive steak.

“We always undervalue our own ingredients and I want to change that.”

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