Business

A hunger for entrepreneurship in Cambodia’s emerging food industry

FoodFrienz, co-founded by Alex Ung, seeks to make Cambodian food brands a viable choice—including its first product, soy milk.

FoodFrienz, co-founded by Alex Ung, seeks to make Cambodian food brands a viable choice—including its first product, soy milk.

If Angkor beer is the only food/beverage brand you know of from Cambodia (“my country, my beer”), then you haven’t been exposed to the emerging movement for locally sourced offerings for refreshment, including producers of palm wine, fruit juices, and coffee. Not only do such products increase the visibility of Khmer culinary offerings, they hold out the hope that the country’s economic profile could one day be boosted by a thriving home-grown sector.

The latest addition to the list is soy milk, made available by a new brand started by Alex Ung, an enterprising young Cambodian American. Ung was formerly a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara and studied abroad in Singapore. At that time, during a visit to neighboring Cambodia, he was struck by the lack of native food products. His interest in learning more about his own heritage as well as business prospects in Southeast Asia eventually led to his founding of FoodFrienz, a collaborative effort with Tola Sovan, a Cambodian national whom Ung met during his travels.

“FoodFrienz has received overwhelmingly positive sentiments from the people we’ve approached with our soya milk, even before they’ve had a taste,” said Ung. “The very notion of Cambodian entrepreneurs pioneering this very dark road reinforces the idea that Cambodians can be producers, rather than just users of foreign products.”

In fact, the company’s “Superbean” soy milk, priced at 65 cents per bottle (approximately 2600 riels) can be purchased from several wholesalers in Phnom Penh and even offers free home delivery. Soy milk was chosen as FoodFrienz’s first product because of its ubiquity in Cambodian households, many of which brew their own soy milk, and the warm, familial connotations of the drink.

Ung may well be on to something. A search of online directories of Khmer businesses yields 215 listings for the category of food products, processing, and suppliers. Another sign of this growing movement is the opening of a food industry lab in Phnom Penh with Chinese support in December of last year. While food safety and quality are important issues in the development of Cambodia’s relevant infrastructure, stumbling blocks remain.

“The food industry, with its large number of small and medium-sized enterprises, has great potential for contributing to pro-poor growth in Cambodia,” according to a 2011 report by the Asian Development Bank. Furthermore, “the largest bottleneck in Cambodia’s food industry, in terms of reducing competitiveness in international markets, is the lack of supporting industries. Food, particularly low value-added food, is generally competitive internationally (e.g., Cambodian rice), but the productivity of Cambodia’s processed or value-added food is low because of high costs associated with the packaging process.”

There has been some success exporting Cambodian rice, through the efforts of companies such as Khmer Foods Group, Angkor International, and Imperial Rina Group. Khmer-brand bags of rice started appearing on shelves in America, all the way from overseas, in 2011.

Many Cambodian American consumers seemed to welcome the development; many more who travel between the two countries have brought home tightly-wrapped packages of dried or fermented fish at the request of relatives who say that the quality of similar products made in America just isn’t quite the same. For the older generations especially, a taste of home could be a powerful selling point that bodes well for entrepreneurs such as Ung wishing to make Cambodian brands both domestically and internationally sought-after.

However, aside from supply and demand, to Ung, the food industry is about much more—the very health of the populace is at stake. “Cambodia is becoming health conscious, which works in our favor. Cambodians are starting to care about what they put into their bodies, and FoodFrienz deeply cares about making our products in as healthy a way as possible,” said Ung.

In a sense, the traditional Cambodian diet is all-natural, largely free of industrial processing (chemical additives and preservatives) or packaging. On the other hand, mass-produced foods often sacrifice taste and freshness for convenience. The American food industry, changing to reflect recent consumer interest in healthier choices, stands to learn from markets (or palates) in which organic and “slow food” are the norm.

But there seems to be room for a balance between these values, especially given some creative risk-taking by food start-ups and a desire for sustainability in nutrition and commerce simultaneously.

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For inquiries, contact FoodFrienz  at +855 08 922 7981 or foodfrienz@gmail.com.

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