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Ready-to-cook meals delivered deskside for working women

Saya Linda wants to bring Smarta’s food to working mums.
Saya Linda wants to bring Smarta’s food to working mums. Athena Zelandonii

Ready-to-cook meals delivered deskside for working women

The concept of ready-to-cook grocery delivery rose to success on the dime of Western office workers returning home late to an empty fridge. But in Cambodia, three twenty-something women have designed a business that tests the model among a new market: Phnom Penh’s working mothers.

The small-scale Smarta Food Store, launched last month, aims to cut down on women’s time constraints, says 25-year-old general manager Saya Linda.

“Working mums have to do their shopping, do their cleaning. By the time they cook, they are already exhausted,” she says.

Linda and her business partners – her sister Saya Marta and colleague Say Lalin – operate a climate-controlled warehouse behind the family home. Inside, fresh meats (delivered from a butcher in Takhmao), vegetables (from three local suppliers) and market ingredients are carefully packed and lined up for in-city delivery.

Ready-to-cook Cambodian cuisine is par for the course at local supermarkets, says Linda, where they are often pre-packaged days in advance. But Smarta’s meals arrive at their customers’ desks just as they prepare to head home – no grocery-run necessary – and on the day they are made.

The businesswomen believe the demand for their new service rests – at least partially – in Cambodia’s entrenched gender norms. Marta, a mother and food-hygiene specialist, was inspired by personal experience.

“Women now, they are [educated], so most of them work. But still, the responsibility for taking care of the family at home is their core responsibility,” Linda says. “If you can’t feed your family’s stomach – no matter how successful you are outside the home – [the perception is] that you’re not a good woman.”

So over the past few weeks, Linda has gone from workplace to workplace advertising Smarta. “I always ask around: How many people? How many girls?” she says.

The idea for Smarta took root in late 2014, and the women tested their pitch last year in front of investors and businesspeople through the Ministry of Commerce’s MOC 101 Incubator. For now, though, they are entirely self-funded.

“We don’t even have the market yet,” says Linda. During its soft launch, Smarta has courted just 15 weekly customers. For now, the service is call-in, with plans for an online system in the works.

But the businesswomen have based their model on wildly successful grocery-delivery startups in wealthier countries – from the US to Southeast Asia. Companies have taken off in Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Taipei. Roger Egan, the CEO of Singapore-based RedMart, estimates that country’s online-delivery market’s annual value at $16 billion.

Replicating the model for Cambodian working moms won’t yield that kind of cash. But the issues faced by large companies – namely maintaining hygienic standards and regular temperatures in large warehouses – also likely won’t be a problem for a small-scale operation like Smarta. Marta’s expertise has proven instrumental.

“She knows how things should be cut, cleaned and stored,” Linda says, and it’s been put into practice in the warehouse.

By the end of the year – and pending investment – the women plan for Smarta’s enterprise to move out of the back of the house and on to a plot of land where they can source their own vegetables, avoiding potentially harmful chemicals.

First, Smarta may face a barrier to entry: the priciest meal is 20,000 riel – about $5 – but the entrepreneurs are working quickly to bring down the cost.

“It’s not about the business making money,” Linda says. “It’s about providing social responsibility to our customers.”

Linda sees that responsibility at the individual level: women returning home to their families, with a slightly lighter burden.

“When they come home, they just open the package and just start cooking.”

Smarta Food Store is now open for delivery. Website: www.smartafood.com. Tel: 093 811 342.

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