A young Cambodian entrepreneur took a gamble to promote the pepper grown in Tbong Khmum province in a competitive global market hungry for the spice. Five years later, she takes huge pride in her company's continued success.
Businesswoman Soeng Sopha took up an unusual challenge when looking to prove that the black pepper from Tbong Khmum province’s Memot district is every bit as good as that produced in other parts of the Kingdom.
But when you are competing with the world-renowned Kampot pepper brand famous for its taste and quality, that is easier said than done.
However, some five years later, and with plenty of determination and the help of foreign investors, Sopha – a Business Administration graduate from Pannasastra University of Cambodia – has achieved her goal.
The young entrepreneur took the bold step of establishing the Sela Pepper Co Ltd in 2015 in the eastern province’s Memot district – which now produces around 100 tonnes of black pepper annually.
“Reasons for setting up a pepper processing factory in Memot district include the fact that the land is fertile and moist like in Kampot, and it has a large area for growing pepper. Around 75 per cent of the pepper used in the Kingdom comes from Memot,” Sopha, the founder and director of Sela Pepper, told The Post.
Cambodia’s tropical climate permits pepper plantations to flourish year-round in fertile provinces other than Kampot – such as Kampong Cham, Kep and Ratanakkiri – where cultivators produce quality spicy pepper for both the domestic and export markets.
Farmers in the Kingdom produce high-grade GI – “geographical indication” – pepper that is certified by the EU. GI identifies and protects a product’s geographical origin.
Sela’s production facility is involved in the farming, harvesting, cleaning and drying of the pepper, as well as the packaging and distribution of the high-quality finished product.
And the company works with around 600 families in the district by providing technical assistance in producing the crop.
The factory produces 25 different products, from black, red and white pepper – as well as Kampot salt – to special food sauces.
Its products are exported to Europe, the US, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Germany, while plans are in the pipeline to ship to new markets.
“Everyone asks me why I did not set up a processing factory in Kampot province instead of Memot district. I reply that while Kampot pepper already had a market, the pepper grown in other areas – especially Memot pepper – had yet to have one.
“Even most Cambodians do not know that pepper grows in Memot. Most people think pepper only comes from Kampot province. However, Memot pepper has a delicious taste and is very spicy,” Sopha said.
For centuries regarded as “the king of spices”, pepper is the most traded spice in the global market due to the strong demand for a commodity commonly used to enhance flavour in almost all cuisines across the world.
According to Global Trade publication on December 25 last year, Vietnam remains the world’s top producer, with 273,000 tonnes of pepper, followed by Indonesia with 88,000 tonnes, while Brazil is ranked third with 80,000 tonnes.
Due to growing demand for pepper in food production and better returns, a large number of Cambodian farmers have ventured into the cultivation of the spice – shifting away from traditional crops such as cassava and cashew nuts, say experts.
Sela Pepper has installed state-of-the-art equipment to improve production efficiency.
Its processing facility has the capacity to produce 1.5 tonnes of pepper in one hour, while being able to steam sterilise 600kg of pepper and process 500kg of ground pepper in the same amount of time.
The company has also set up the industrial-scale Sela Pepper Science and Technology Centre in Memot district to conduct research and development into the commodity.
The centre helps in the promoting of sustainable and climate-resilient farming techniques.