The Tonle Sap Lake holds significant importance as the nation’s primary fishery resources. People in surrounding provinces depend on the lake’s abundant fish for their daily meals, processing them into dried and fermented fish, which are then sold in markets.

Traditionally, those living around the lake primarily make dried fish for their families, sometimes using unhygienic methods. In the modern era, dried fish production has shifted towards trade and income generation due to its rising popularity. Recognising this change, the CAPFISH-CAPTURE project imparts knowledge on hygiene practices, proper drying methods and food safety-compliant packaging to those producing dried fish for sale.

Soung Sophorn, the owner of his namesake dried fish enterprise in Kampong Thom province, established his business in 2011. In 2017, the enterprise gained official registration with the provincial Department of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation. Initially, the business started with a team of six employees.

Before his involvement in the fishery development project, Sophorn faced several challenges in dried fish production due to his use of traditional methods. The primary issue was the location of his fish drying rack in an open field, leading to unhygienic conditions and attracting flies and insects. Weather conditions also posed challenges, as inconsistent sunlight affected the drying process, sometimes leaving the fish improperly dried. Additionally, unpredictable rain showers could cause the drying fish to spoil.

“Whenever it rained, my fish spoiled, leaving nothing to deliver to buyers. Additionally, my staff lacked proper uniforms, an appropriate station to wash their hands and had limited knowledge about maintaining personal hygiene before starting work,” he recalls.

Upon learning about the project, he applied, and his venture was selected to partake in the project’s dried fish production endeavour, with the goal of meeting technical food safety standards.

Through his involvement, Sophorn has revamped his fish drying rack. It once stood as an unsanitary, disorganised area near contaminated water. Now, it has been transformed into a clean, well-organised space, complete with efficient drainage systems and a dedicated hand washing area to ensure the maintenance of hygiene practices.

Moreover, his staff now possess knowledge of hygiene principles and the use of appropriate protective clothing.

“When I first joined the project, it was a transformative experience that enlightened me about the genuine significance of hygiene and its principles. The training provided by the project has given me insights into food safety principles that I now implement at my facility,” he expresses.

“In the past, when we adhered to traditional methods, there was limited interest in our products. However, since embracing modern techniques, we are delighted because we have customers who actively inquire about our products. We demonstrate that our facility has evolved from an ordinary place to a highly hygienic establishment, in accordance with established food safety standards,” he elaborates.

He also mentions that the technical assistance provided by the CAPFISH-CAPTURE project has equipped him with vital skills and knowledge in various areas, including writing project proposals, business management, consulting and marketing guidance.

Furthermore, the project has extended its support to participants in establishing brand identities, designing packaging and creating product logos. Additionally, the project has delivered training and coaching on food safety practices to meet the criteria of the Cambodia Quality Seal (CQS) certification system. It has also supplied equipment for water and product quality testing to guarantee adherence to CQS requirements and audits.

“Upon being chosen by the project, I received a dryer, a water purifier, a fish washing table and a refrigerator. Additionally, I was provided with an automatic packaging machine, a spice blender and a three-door refrigerator,” he discloses.

Modern methods

Yun Samnang, proprietor of Samnang Sothea Fish Processing situated in Aranh village in Siem Reap commune and town, recounts that he commenced his dried fish production enterprise in 2003, starting with an initial investment of 410,000 riel ($102). He processed approximately 5 to 10kg of dried fish daily, resulting in a modest income.

“Using traditional techniques for drying fish, we would typically arrange the fish on mats or directly on the ground, following an outdated approach. However, this method lacked modern techniques. We manually combined ingredients and dried the fish in open fields, encountering challenges like dust, wind and flies. The drying process would take several days, and occasionally, rain would damage the fish, resulting in an insufficient supply for our customers,” he elaborates.

“While traditional methods can yield large quantities of dried fish, they fall short in terms of safety and hygiene measures,” he remarked.

Due to the increasing focus on health, Samnang says he finds it necessary to alter his approach to dried fish production to adhere to established standards. With the support of the CAPFISH-CAPTURE project, he has implemented substantial enhancements to his processing site, diligently following the recommendations of project consultants to ensure alignment with CQS hygiene standards. His involvement has not only enriched the knowledge and abilities of his employees but also bolstered his competitiveness in the market, enabling him to explore new markets with added value.

“CAPFISH has supplied equipment and technical expertise concerning food safety, implemented a thorough monitoring system to ensure compliance with safety standards and conducted numerous training sessions for our staff on the management of safety protocols,” he underscores.

Khem Chakrya, a coordinator for the CAPFISH-CAPTURE project, says this initiative represents a post-harvest fishery development endeavour implemented in collaboration with the Fisheries Administration (FiA) – which operates under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries – and the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), with funding from the EU. The project has been offering support to 28 enterprises throughout Cambodia in their quest to produce safe food products.

This venture has facilitated the private sector’s shift from conventional to contemporary and technologically advanced practices, placing a strong emphasis on hygiene and the adherence to food safety standards. This transition has enabled businesses to expand their operations, access broader markets, enhance wage levels and create safe working environments for their employees.

“After joining the project, I gained access to vital resources, including appropriate facilities and knowledge, which significantly improved the well-being of my staff. In our commitment to society, my business manufactures products that meet safety standards for distribution to markets,” says Samnang.

Agriculture ministry spokeswoman Im Rachna notes that when it comes to processing fishery products, many producers tend to favour traditional methods over adopting modern standards.

The transition from traditional handicrafts to standardised enterprises presents challenges for some processors, as it often necessitates a significant capital investment. Despite support offered by development partners and the technical assistance from the FiA, capital-related challenges persist among some enterprises.

Nonetheless, Rachna encouraged businesses interested in participating in the safe production of food to collaborate, underscoring that cooperation is crucial for promoting success in the production of fishery products post-harvest.

“The collaboration of business owners is a crucial guarantee that their enterprises can achieve sustainability even after their participation in the project concludes,” she says.

Thong Ra, a food safety expert from UNIDO, highlights that ensuring food safety ranks among the utmost priorities for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The shift from traditional to modern methods in dried fish processing can substantially enhance the production of safe food, thereby reducing health risks.

Globally, approximately 600 million individuals endure illnesses each year attributed to the consumption of unsafe food, resulting in economic costs of up to $110 billion. Over 200 different diseases can result from the consumption of unhealthy food, spanning from diarrhoea to cancer.

According to a report from the Ministry of Health, from 2014 to 2022, there were over 6,700 reported cases of food poisoning in Cambodia, resulting in the loss of 162 lives.