In the heart of Kampong Cham province’s Stung Trang district, the cultivation of lemongrass has become a prosperous venture for Sambo Meanchey Agricultural Cooperative, all due to the implementation of a sturdy irrigation canal. 

With support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the vital infrastructure not only bolsters rice production but also underpins the thriving lemongrass trade, significantly elevating the community’s economic well-being.

Community member Phuth Sarith reports a notable rise in rice yields, while Mam Kimhong highlights the canal’s role in enabling multiple rice harvests and a shift to more profitable crops like lemongrass. 

Established in 2010 with just 88 members, the collective has flourished to nearly 2,000, accompanied by a substantial increase in financial prosperity. 

The development of essential infrastructure has transformed irrigation, leading to a notable surge in lemongrass yields and providing the opportunity to expand and diversify cultivated lands.

The positive shift has translated into a large boost in income for the co-op, with lemongrass harvests alone reaching over 1,500 tonnes annually. 

The community’s journey exemplifies the transformative impact of strategic infrastructure development on agricultural practices and economic success. 

“Lemongrass has become a favourite for many due to its easy cultivation and adaptability. The surge in popularity is leading to more people, including the elderly, to expand their cultivated land, all thanks to the availability of ample water sources,” Sarith shares with The Post.

He also notes a substantial boost in his yields since the introduction of the canal.

Phen Vuthy, a board member of the co-op, showcases the growth and success of their efforts.

“We sell over 1,500 tonnes of lemongrass annually in our market, significantly extending our supply period from six to 11 months per year,” he says.

Turning discarded waste into ‘liquid gold’

The community found a valuable herbal income source in 2018 as they sought ways to process unused leaf waste into oil. 

“We researched processing techniques, partnering with an enterprise in Siem Reap province and learning from their expertise,” shares Chheng Thong, chairman of the cooperative board.

“In late 2019, we started our own enterprise to process lemongrass oil, rescuing leaves from the waste generated since our community began cultivating the plants in 2016,” he says.

Sarith shares how distilling oil has become a valuable source of extra income for the community. 

“We make use of the leaves often deemed useless after cutting the stalks, turning them into a source of income for our community,” he explains.

The cooperative’s essential oil has earned accolades from the Kampong Cham provincial Department of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation. 

Poun Run, director of the department, commends the approach of transforming agricultural waste into valuable products.  

“The department backs the development of standardised products focusing on hygiene, quality and packaging, ensuring the well-deserved recognition of the community’s lemongrass oil. I applaud the co-op for their innovative approach to processing the lemongrass leaves in their area,” he tells The Post.

Run notes that in addition to administrative support, his department encourages the group to showcase their products at both provincial and national exhibitions. 

Essence extraction

The processing of lemongrass oil involves a series of steps that capture the natural essence of the tropical plant while preserving its aromatic properties. 

Initially, the plant is harvested, with a focus on leaves since the mature stalks are cut and sold to markets. These leaves are then dried under the sun.

The traditional method involves steam distillation, where water is heated to boil the material, effectively extracting the oil. 

“Afterward, we simply drain the water from the bottom, as water is heavier than oil, leaving behind pure lemongrass extract as the finished product,” notes Hak Chamroeun, the project manager.

She says that the process is celebrated for capturing lemongrass’s fragrant essence without resorting to chemicals, ensuring the oil retains its natural qualities.

After a production hiatus prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the making of lemongrass oil resumed in 2021. The barn was stacked with leaves, rice husks filled the kiln and the steam pot started pouring out oil.

Distilling 150kg of dried leaves yields about half a litre of oil. The leaves are purchased from cooperative members at 400 riel ($0.10) per kilogramme.

“If the leaves are quite dry, the oil showcases a dark yellow hue and has a volume of less than half a litre. Conversely, if the leaves aren’t very dry, the oil appears more transparent,” she tells The Post.

Pure aroma

“Despite the variance in colour, the oil maintains the same high quality; only the darker oil yields a stronger aroma,” Chamroeun notes.

Employing a steam kiln, every batch produces half a litre of aromatic oil. The community then packages it into 10ml bottles which it then sells for 17,000 riel ($4.15).

“I’ve come across lemongrass oil at different exhibitions, but our product stands out. We produce 100% pure oil and it carries a delightful fragrance,” she says.

“Maybe I lack the sales and marketing techniques or it could be due to the unattractive design, but we haven’t yet managed to place our products in supermarkets or pharmacies,” she adds.

Aided by social media, they currently sell approximately 20 litres of lemongrass oil products per month.

The chairman of the group details the advantages of lemongrass oil, noting its ability to soothe skin irritations, lessen redness and provide relief for minor burns or insect bites. It also proves effective in alleviating muscle and joint pain.

“Commonly, people use it as an insect repellent, especially for mosquitoes. Just put a drop of oil on a bit of cotton and place it in the room. The scent also makes cockroaches run away,” Thong tells The Post.