Cambodia is known for its curries, dusting clay, ancient temples, and even older souls, all of which are set against the backdrop of an endless forest. Until such time as it ceased to be the case. Since the nation first opened its doors to tourists many years ago, there have been many ups and downs in terms of growth. These ups and downs have been framed by the atrocities of genocide and civil war, which everyone would prefer forget.
In the midst of it all are initiatives with a forward-thinking focus, each of which is seeking to invest in growth that will assure a brighter future. In opposition to them are short-term financial advantages, which are illustrated by rubber trees, which have smelly sap that leaves a stain in your nostrils and are a source of irritation. Although rubber and palm trees are a concern across Asia, their presence in Cambodia’s environment is relatively recent, despite the fact that the problems they cause are not any less severe.
The staff at KamKav Farm, however, is working on a solution to this problem. They are constructing the first cacao area in the nation right in the middle of Mondolkiri Province, which is located in the eastern part of Cambodia. They are building a future alongside people who are often too terrified to believe in its existence, and they are doing it in collaboration with local farmers.
Simply click on this link in order to listen to a podcast version of this episode.
History of Cacao in Cambodia
Kidding. In a sense. In point of fact, the history of cacao in Cambodia spans less than two decades, making it a very recent import. The documents that are now available, or the absence thereof, suggest that there were never any efforts made to cultivate cacao in Cambodia, not even during the time when the area was occupied by the French. In contrast to the history of cacao in the neighboring country of Vietnam, the history of cacao in Cambodia is quite recent. It all started with a few trees strewn around the Thai and Vietnamese borders. These trees were probably planted some point in the last twenty years, but there are so few of them that it’s almost like they’re not even worth noting.
One company’s goal, however, was to expand from a few scattered trees to tens of thousands over the eastern section of the nation beginning in 2014. Even though KamKav Farm (pronounce: Kem Kau) is nowhere near that number right now, the thousands of trees that they have already helped place into the soil are setting the groundwork for future growth. Although the farms associated to KamKav may not be the first cacao trees to be planted in the nation, they are the first efforts at growing cacao on a scale significant enough to be considered commercially viable. They want to make that scale a part of a flourishing ecotourism business in the area as well as a general respect for Cambodian-grown items in general.
Growing Cambodian Cacao Farms
However, let us begin our discussion from the very beginning. Back in 2013, KamKav Farm was first conceived as a vision. In order to get the initiative off the ground, one of the co-founders, Stefan, uprooted his life and traveled to Cambodia. Together with the other co-founder Chanthol, he spent a whole year learning about the production of cacao, notably in Vietnam. They obtained their first seedlings from that location, which came from a stock of four different varieties that had been selected due to the fact that they were the most suitable for the soil. Two years have passed, and now the project is at a critical state.
As a result of the drought that is affecting their eastern region, their cocoa trees, which are only one year old, are passing away from thirst. El Nio weather patterns had been a concern in the region for decades, but they struck so strongly that year that almost all of the trees in the area were destroyed. There were just a few hundred left. After those trees started producing fruit, they came to the conclusion that they should utilize the seeds to propagate further seedlings and grow their business. Unfortunately, since we have not yet sold any cacao beans that have been processed, it has been difficult to encourage other farmers to grow cacao trees.
KamKav Farm currently collaborates with ten other farms in the area, the majority of whose owners are under the age of 40 and who include a sizeable number of women. Since the majority of Mondolkiri’s farmers are not originally from the area, it may be deduced that practically everyone in the area left in the hope of finding a more prosperous life elsewhere. Both Chanthol and Stefan are aware that this is a possibility for that existence.
At the moment, many farmers are only planting one crop on their property, often rubber, bananas, or lumber. This is the case in the United States. The deforestation that was caused as a result of such decisions has even altered the temperature of Mondolkiri, in addition to removing the majority of the bigger species of animals from the region. According to Chanthol, who has lived in the area since 2004, the weather has only been hotter for longer periods of time as the years have passed and as more trees have been cut down. However, the reforestation of land is only one of several driving forces.
I checked in Vietnam [in 2013], in the province of Buon Me Thuot, and the one that really shocked me in a good way was a cacao farmer who had 1.5 hectares of coffee and 1.5 hectares of cacao… he was growing both of these crops. and the guy had everything: a brand new house, a brand new compact family car, brand new utilities (electricity and water), etc. And that one illustration is something that has stayed with me ever since I arrived in Mondulkiri, because the situation is almost exactly the same… “Oh my God, if they can live like [that], then it would be possible in Mondolkiri as well,” I think to myself. “If they can live like [that] there.”
Stefan, Co-founder KamKav Farm
Stefan went on to tell a story about a farmer in Cambodia who was in her seventies in order to illustrate the mentality that they are up against in that country. She owned ten hectares of land but was still impoverished because the only thing she planted on it was banana trees. She is one of many Cambodians who is wary of unsubstantiated promises of a better life because she survived unspeakable horrors during the war and genocide as well as the starvation that followed. She requires you to demonstrate that you have receipts for that potential, not just wants you to do so. The feeling of dread runs in her family.
Fear Is In Their Genes
The country of Cambodia has been impacted on a widespread scale by the civil war and the subsequent genocide. If I avoided discussing these issues head-on, I would be doing the nation and its people a disservice. It is estimated that between 1.5 and 2 million people perished as a direct result of the genocide that took place between 1975 and 1979; this does not include the people who perished as a direct result of the dictatorship that followed. The level of fear that you experience for an extended period of time bakes itself into your bones, and it is passed down from generation to generation. It requires a culture of prolonged trust on the other side as well as people who are willing to build it.
In order to win over their customers’ confidence, Chanthol and Stefan have adjusted the way that they present their cacao. They maintain their own farm and the headquarters of the operation in close proximity to those of their farmer partners, providing them with affordable seedlings and assisting them with any issues that may arise. They want to change people’s perceptions of the land so that it is seen as a place for long-term projects rather than just a place to grow crops for the next harvest. This will encourage farmers to look further into the future than just the next harvest.
Despite the fact that Cambodia did not produce its first bar of chocolate until 2019, KamKav is doing everything it can to attract visitors from outside Cambodia in order to demonstrate that there is a viable market for fine cacao. Following the successful completion of their initial harvest, the company intends to take the next step toward reforesting the entire region by expanding into the neighboring province of Rathanakiri during the course of the following year. Even after a half decade has passed, the project is still in its infant stages and there is a possibility that it will be expanded to other regions of the country in the future.
Building Cambodian Chocolate Culture
The fact that the nation’s first bean-to-bar chocolate producer, Wat Chocolate, was founded on KamKav Farm is perhaps the single most encouraging development in the company’s history. Wat started off in a chocolate manufacturing facility that was far bigger than the norm since they were already familiar with the process of chocolate production; all that was left for them to do was acquire some local beans. When they finally got their hands on their first batch of Cambodian cacao beans in July of 2019, they wasted no time in conducting tests and getting to know the beans better.
Not long after that, the farmers finally got to eat the first chocolate that was prepared using their cocoa, and for many of them, it was the first time they had ever tasted true chocolate. The majority of the sweets that are sold in convenience shops and bakeries in Cambodia just have a chocolate flavoring added to them, giving the Cambodians’ conception of a chocolate bar a more surface-level flavor. Even Chanthol from KamKav didn’t taste chocolate for the first time until 2008, and it would be many more years before he really consumed a genuine chocolate bar.
The bars sold by Wat Chocolate cost four dollars United States Dollars apiece, which puts them, at least temporarily, out of reach for the majority of Cambodians. But fortunately, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat attract millions of tourists each year, and a significant number of those tourists are on the lookout for opportunities to purchase locally-made goods while they are there. In addition to traditional dark chocolate bars, they also sell regionally-inspired varieties like as salted peppercorn and crunchy peanut, and they want to introduce further Khmer interpretations in the near future.
Even though they have plans to hire a much larger team in the future, the three of them and their cacao source in the east are currently managing to get the job done quite capably on their own.
The Future of Chocolate in Cambodia
I struck up a discussion with a young Cambodian lady as I was riding the minibus to Mondolkiri. She was from Cambodia. She spoke English with an accent from the United States, she had just graduated from university the previous year, and Mondolkiri was both her birthplace and her place of upbringing. She is from a tiny village in Cambodia that is an ethnic minority, so she is familiar with the closed-mindedness that may develop as a result of not being exposed to views from the outside world. Therefore, as part of her charity work, she visits there to teach job skills and promote the potential of young women who come from similar backgrounds to her own.
She once realized that it just takes one person to flip your viewpoint on its head and stretch your vision from one year into the future to a full lifetime and then generations beyond that. She gained this insight from a past experience. This is the kind of effect that KamKav wants to have on the farmer partners that they work with. It is for this reason that preserving the honor of Cambodian cacao is of the utmost significance, and doing so requires a collaborative effort from everyone involved since everyone stands to gain from its success.
It is my hope that a thriving firm that contributes positively to the local economy as well as the environment would demonstrate to other young people the positive impact they can have in the community. Because Cambodians, when they start to look more towards the future, see it as being as bright and as full of life as far as they allow themselves go, the reason for this is that.
Please feel free to contact the company’s co-founder, Chanthol Chean, at chanthol[@]cfarm.asia if you are interested in acquiring some free samples of Cambodian cacao beans.