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Q&A: Peeling back the success of a national fruit

Sok Chan / Khmer Times Share:
Preparing the bananas for export in hygienic circumstances. Supplied

The Cambodian government is now in discussions with China on a new list of agricultural goods that are being prioritised for export to China after the success of fresh yellow bananas sent there last year. The new list contains six items – fresh mangoes, longana, pepper, dragon fruit, fragrant coconuts and birds’ nests. Khmer Times’ Sok Chan, spoke to Hun Lak, Longmate agricultural director, one of the banana exporters to China, about the export opportunities for fresh yellow banana to China, how this successful banana export experience can pave the way for other Cambodian agriculture products and what are the essential things that investors need to know when preparing for this giant market.

KT: Could you brief us about the new development of Longmate Agriculture?

Hun Lak: We started the business by the end of 2017. During the first year, we prepared the land, irrigation system, packaging facility and warehousing other infrastructure for the farm. Our farm sits on 1,000 hectares of land located in Chhuk district, Kampot province. We grow about 2,450 banana per hectare.

The capital investment was about $32 million. We have planted and harvested yellow bananas on more than 400 hectares of land and so far our plantation has run for 15 months. The first export of our yellow bananas started in May 2019, a year ago. So far we have exported in excess of 10,000 tonnes o fresh yellow bananas so China. We send then in boxes weighing 13.5kg. We have exported more than 1 million boxes. Longmate employs people from four villages – 900 alone in Chhuk district, Kampot province. We have also selected students from Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) to provide them with training and sent them to China to learn about the technical aspects of growing and maintaining the plants and packaging them for export. Until, now the farmers and students were not aware of the techniques. This agriculture is modern, quality and sustainable and can serve the market needs.

KT: Because a lot of fruits are seasonal crops, how can you manage exports for a whole year?

Hun Lak: In fact, this yellow banana originated from Australia, but they have been developed and researched in China for about 10 years, then the China government allowed us to bring the seeds to Cambodia to continue their development. At present, the banana seeds have been planted in Cambodia. The yellow banana currently grown in Cambodia is the third generation. It takes around 8.5 to 9 months before harvesting. It is also dependent on the climate, constant watering and fertiliser. This seed is not a seasonal crop. We grow every day and harvest every day. It is the popular seeds and it needs climate like we have in Cambodia – warm and wet. Cambodia and some countries in Asean have the potential to grow this yellow banana producing both good yields and quality.

KT: Is this yellow banana here a purified seedling because it is the third generation?

Hun Lak: We have not made any assessment on purified seedlings because it’s early days, the intermodal-period, but the quality is the best because of the climate and soil. The quality of the soil this yellow banana is grown in here is better than China’s soil. The taste and quality are different. The price of yellow bananas grown in Cambodia which sell in China is higher than the yellow bananas grown in China.

KT: Does Kampot have potential to grow yellow banana?

Hun Lak: Different varieties of yellow bananas have been growing in some provinces in Cambodia.

It has been growing them in Kampong Cham, Kratie, Rattanakiri and Stung Treng province. However, buyers still value more bananas from Kampot. It is maybe because the taste is good or because the farm is close to the sea and mountains and it’s wet that lends it a special flavour.

KT: As you mentioned, you have been exporting them for one year. How many tonnes are you exporting daily?

Hun Lak, Longmate agricultural director. KT/Tep Sony

Hun Lak: We harvest and pack and export daily. It is not a seasonal crop. It is a fresh fruit and needs good preparation, kept in a cold place before being exported. We export three 40-feet containers every two days, or some days we export about seven containers. So far, we have exported more than 10,000 tonnes.

KT: Will the sales and orders increase year-on-year?

Hun Lak: If we could produce more, we coud export more. The demand of the market is not limited and there are no quotas. If we could produce what the orders demanded, we would. There is potential for us. In general, the Chinese market demands around 2 million tonnes per year from various countries. Our company currently exports high-grade fresh bananas to China.

KT: Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your exports?

Hun Lak: We have not see any impact on exports because Cambodia does not use ports affected by the pandemic, so exports are running normally. On top of this, our bananas have only entered local markets so far this month. Now, we are starting to put our yellow bananas into the supermarket.

KT: Besides China, to which countries are you looking at exporting the yellow bananas? Will you plan to process fresh banana?

Hun Lak: In fact, we have thought about this, but the Chinese market is our first market. China is the a big market. However, when we reach the next level of the development and compete with other international products, we will try to export to the Middle East, Japan, Korea and the EU. We expect to export more than 20,000 tonnes for the first year, 30,000 in the second year, but we have yet to reach our goals. We will meet the challenges as they come. We are now also thinking of processing low-grade bananas for export now too. We have to use all of our potential, so we are currently discussing ways to use the grade C or D bananas for processing and producing dried banana chips or banana puree for example. We are also working on a similar idea for other low-grade fruits.

KT: To be successful in exporting agriculture products to foreign countries, for instance, the yellow banana, what factors should Cambodian businessmen take consideration of?

Hun Lak: If we want to be successful, we have to follow the market drivers, select the right seedling needed by the market, have a stable supply, ensure they are safe to eat and ensure high standards.

Our product must meet the sanitation and phytosanitary needs each country because they can vary.

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