Sweet Taste of Success

WORKERS QUALITY CHECK RAW SUGAR PALM IN COMFREL FACTORY, PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
WORKERS QUALITY CHECK RAW SUGAR PALM IN COMFREL FACTORY, PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA

WORKERS QUALITY CHECK RAW SUGAR PALM IN COMFREL FACTORY, PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA

Since receiving Geographical Indication status in 2010, Cambodia’s Kampong Speu palm sugar has steadily gained popularity within the international market. With more innovative plans in the pipeline, the product’s export rates looks set to soar. 

Cambodia’s palm sugar exports are on the increase after a drive to popularise the country’s unique product internationally. Industry experts predict the volume of exported material will continue to rise as more buyers realise its potential.

Last year, a total 50 tonnes of Kampong Speu palm sugar was exported, according to the Kampong Speu Palm Sugar Promotion Association. This represents an impressive 138 percent hike on the previous year’s 21 exported tonnes. And as international demand for the local product continues to grow, this figure looks like rising in the future.

In 2010, Kampong Speu palm sugar was awarded Geographical Indication (GI) status, alongside the country’s Kampot pepper. The certification sets the standards for production and also helps to raise the brand’s profile globally. It is used to link products with a specific location and can act as a certification that the product contains specific qualities, is made using traditional methods or achieves a certain standard because of traits specific to the region, such as the climate or soil.

The sandy soil of the province makes it ripe for growing the palm sugar tree, which is the Kingdom’s national tree, and the method of collecting and cooking the sugar secured it GI status. During the November to March dry season, each morning and evening, farmers skirt up self-made bamboo ladders mounted to the tree trunks to collect sap from flowers that grow amongst the spiked leaves. The sap is then boiled and stirred continually until it starts to stiffen into a golden treacle-like liquid, which is then poured into small circular moulds made from the tree’s leaves. There it is left to solidify before being sold as small chunks of palm sugar.

“The GI status gives more value to the products, and the producers benefit from this by receiving higher prices for their product,” says Julien Coponat, deputy manager of Confirel, which manufactures and retails a range of palm sugar commodities from its factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. “In terms of the export market, it gives much higher recognition to the product. If you taste the sugar from Kampong Speu and compare it to that from Siem Reap, you can taste the difference.”

However, Kim Sunun, marketing manager at Confirel, adds that palm sugar has not enjoyed the same level of success as Kampot pepper, which is now popular around the globe. “Kampong Speu sugar palm has been slow to be recognised across the world, and there is still a lot of action to be done to keep promoting it,” she says. Palm sugar production currently stands at about 300 to 400 tonnes annually.

In order to increase sales, Confirel has developed a range of products made from elements of the tree, including wine, spirits, sweets and vinegar. The company’s palm sugar production target for this year sits at 50 tonnes, with 20 tonnes being sold on the local market, and the rest exported to countries such as France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Canada and the United States.

The company launched in 2001 with the aim of raising the Cambodia-specific product’s profile across the world, as well as help develop the country’s prosperity. President Hay Ly Eang’s vision was to revive palm sugar trees as a natural resource in the Kingdom while also restoring the natural heritage of Cambodia.

“About 80 percent of the population is living in rural areas,” Coponat says. “We wanted to contribute to rural development by promoting traditional products, such as palm sugar.” Confirel also claims on its website that it gives 5 percent of its net revenue to “help the most vulnerable people in Cambodia.” The company works with 63 families in Kampong Speu province, who provide the palm sugar in its raw form.

The palm sugar is also organic. Confirel provides farmers with training and specific guidelines to ensure the produce complies with stipulated international criteria. For example, when collecting the palm sap from the trees, small wood chips are placed inside the liquid to prevent early fermentation or any bacteria entering the liquid. No chemical fertilisers can be used on the trees, which are individually selected and tested. Farmers must also make a daily register of procedures and are audited annually to ensure standards are continuously met.

In a bid to drive the export market further, Confirel is undergoing plans to brand the products specifically for each market, as well as adding more unique products to their palm sugar portfolio. “We want to continue promoting this incredible local product globally,” says Coponat, adding that the business also has plans to start exporting more of its products than the current raw natural sugar.

Boasting healthier properties than sugarcane, palm sugar has a low glycemic index and is higher in antioxidants. This is another element that the Kampong Speu Palm Sugar Promotion Association and Confirel believe will help boost its popularity at an international level, and give the sugar the brand awareness it deserves worldwide. “We hope that one day, the product will be recognisable in shops across the world,” says Confirel marketing manager, Kim Sunun.

THE GI SYSTEM

A geographical indication is a sign used on a product that has a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation due to its origin.

The GI system was born in France in the early 20th century with the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). It soon spread across Europe and then globally.

Falling under intellectual property law, products awarded GI status are legally protected and other products not meeting the standards are unable to use the name. Examples include Champagne, Tequila and Gruyère cheese. Items that meet the standards are endorsed with a government-issued stamp that acts as certification.

On April 2, 2010, Kampot pepper and Kampong Speu palm sugar were granted GI status after extensive work between the Ministry of Commerce and the World Trade Organisation.

BY MARISSA CARRUTHERS

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