What is the staple food in Cambodia? Once you go to Cambodia, you can easily find that rice is the most popular food in Cambodia because there are lots of rice field. Yes, since old times, they have eaten rice for a long time. However, Mr. Bunlene Khim (Bunlene), the founder of Cambodian Farmer Rice (CFR) said that Cambodian people don’t eat rice grown in Cambodia. Why does such a thing happen and how has he worked for the situation like that? Let’s explore through his interview.
Azumi: Please explain what Cambodian Farmer Rice (CFR) is.
Bunlene: CFR is the corporation that deals in rice. There are two important features of CFR. First, we sell only non-chemical Cambodian rice. We deal only non-chemical rice which is certificated international standard. Because we want to provide good quality and safe rice, but we cannot control the rice from foreign countries. Second, we don’t sell Cambodian rice to the other countries.
Why don’t you think about dealing with overseas?
These days, the government promotes to export Cambodian rice to overseas such as Europe, the United States and so on because they can gain more profit than they sell rice inside of Cambodia. The government can export the rice at a high price because most of the Cambodian rice is safe and high quality (Cambodian rice, Phka Rumduol won the World’s Best Rice award for three years from 2012 to 2014). On the other hands, actually, Cambodian people eat rice from other countries such as Thailand and Vietnam because it is cheaper than rice of our own country. However, the rice from overseas is not safe. They use lots of agricultural chemicals to grow the rice. Of course, if you use chemicals, you can harvest rice more easily, so chemical rice grown in overseas is cheaper than non-chemical rice grown in Cambodia.
But don’t you feel strange that Cambodia cannot eat rice of our own? I think it is nonsense! I would provide safe Cambodian rice rather to Cambodian people than foreign people.
I understand why you focus on selling Cambodian rice in Cambodia. However, it is so expensive, isn’t it? Who are your targets?
Especially, my targets are the high and middle level of households and restaurants. Cambodian rice is so expensive, usually, the price of it is two times or three times higher than that of non-organic rice.
But they still want to buy it because it is certificated safe and organic rice. Actually, they concern much about their health.
Why do you think the customers choose the CFR’s rice?
There are two main reasons. First, ordinal rice sold in the markets is not unreliable because usually, it doesn’t have certification by the reliable standard. If you cannot trust the quality of products, you will not want to buy it at a high price. Second, the laws which protect customers haven’t developed yet in Cambodia. It means if the customers have something wrong with their health because of the products, they cannot appeal to the law about the problem. So they think they should choose more safe products for themselves. However, in reality, there are only a few people who sell organic rice in the market because organic rice is much more expensive than common rice, so they don’t willingly stock organic rice. There are a lot of competitors around me, and there are 100 sellers in Phnom Penh. People sell Cambodian rice don’t so care about customers. However, they mainly focus on their profit and don’t care about people’s health at all.
You are so proud of Cambodian rice, aren’t you?
Yes, of course! According to The World Bank, Cambodia have used fertilizer only 29.7 kg/ha in a year (2014) in the field, while Thailand already have used it 152.3 kg/ha (2014), and Vietnam also have used it 397.4 kg/ha (Source: Fertilizer consumption kilograms per hectare of arable land, 2014, The World Bank)
On the other hand, most of them haven’t used them in rice paddies in Cambodia. Even though they use them, just a little and only during the dry season. Because in a rainy season, the water from the river or rainfall can work as a natural insects and mice repellent. Of course, some places may not suit for growing the organic rice since some people already use agricultural chemicals or some water which come into Cambodia from other countries along the river is already polluted. However, especially in Preah Vihear province, many of them grow the rice on the mountain, so they can grow rice only in the rainy season and the water is completely supplied by rainfall. Therefore, we can say the environment there is safe enough to grow the organic rice and CFR is willingly selling rice from Preah Vihear province.
I think keeping the quality of organic rice is very hard, but how can you make it possible?
We concern some points when we control the quality of organic rice. First, we choose the farms which have a good environment to grow organic rice and already have facilities to stock rice. Second, we use the rice mills which are certificated by ISO. And also, we are careful not to stock rice in the CFR shops for a long time because the shops are not the best places to keep rice. If the farmers don’t make effort to keep the quality of rice, we stop cooperating with them because we want to sell truly high-quality rice. Of course, it is hard to grow and keep organic rice, but if they can grow good organic rice they can get more profit. The profit from organic rice is usually 10～70％ higher than non-organic rice, it is up to the quality of their rice. Then if they don’t make an effort to keep the quality of their rice, we will stop buying the rice from them.
Do you think about expanding your service to other products?
Yes, but even if I started to treat the products except for rice, they may be a little bit. I started the business with rice because rice is easy to stock compared to other products. Now CFR is using organic products as a promotion such as a palm sugar. By using good quality of organic products as a promotion, we can push the good Cambodian products for the people.
And more, I think that if I want to achieve the objective, I should spread my idea to as many people as possible. Therefore the promotion is important for our ideas to show our ideas. Now we spread much information via Facebook because many people and institutions use Facebook, so share the information at a low cost and effectively.
You have a strong preference on Cambodian rice, so I guess your family is also farmer…
Actually, no. I was born in Kampong Cham province but my family isn’t the farmer. My parents are the seller. They have a small shop and sell every kind of things there and run a small family restaurant, too. So I was grown up seeing how they sell goods and understand what the good service is since the young age. Therefore I love to sell something and it is one of the big motivation for my business.
Of course, I need try hard to learn about rice, because I have never worked as a farmer and I cannot realize the difference of rice. I go to the rice field directly, see how the farmers work, taste each kind of rice, and check the way of store rice.
Furthermore, actually, my grandfather was working as an agriculture community chief. He didn’t buy the land but only buy a rice from farmers. I think he was working for the community without thinking too much about money. My current job is also similar to his job, maybe because I was inspired by him.
Why did you found the CFR?
Because I want to create happiness for myself and for others.
Actually, my ultimate goal is going back to my hometown and work as a farmer in the countryside in the future. If I can live in the countryside, I will get up early with my big family, work with them, go out somewhere without traffic jam and eat organic food every day. The life like that is not only healthy but relaxing for me. Moreover, I think that most of the people who go to foreign countries to work are also hope to live with their family in their hometown. They go to overseas because they cannot earn money by farming. But it is very hard for them to work in other countries since they haven’t learned local languages there. They are not able to have a chance to see families in their hometown, and even if they can meet each other, they may already sick because of working hard and eating non-healthy food. Do you think the life like this is happy? I don’t think so.
Then I thought that I need to build a market for organic products as CFR, in order to make systems that they can sell organic products at a proper price. Because market of organic products is not prepared enough yet. If we don’t have a market, we cannot sell our products in order to make our living. Furthermore, our work enables to improve the food self-sufficiency rate and it will bring us sustainable development. My ultimate life mission is to make all the people happy. And I think that it will be achieved by improving their quality of life with keeping cultural lifestyle.
First, this is for Cambodian people.
We are still developing stage, and some may think that we cannot develop our countries because we are weak. However, we have recovered from problems many times, even if many serious issues happened in our societies. I am confident to say that we are strong, so in order to changes the situation better than now, you should be more persistent, and bolder and don’t give up easily achieving something. If you keep trying the situation should get changing.
Second, this is for the young people who would make their own business.
“Use your heart”. Use your heart, not your eyes. I felt uncomfortable when I knew that Cambodian people eat chemical rice. Use your heart to think about one problem and feel it and then you will find the way. If you just read the news, hear it, and don’t use your heart, you will not be passionate about the problem. You go to see new, you go to seminars, you go to the market, you will see problems there. There, you will see what people complain about and what the fascinate things for them.
For example, if your relatives are killed in a traffic accident, the occasion may strongly touch your heart. Furthermore, you will hope to solve the problem because you don’t want any other people to feel sad like you. Once the problem you met touch your heart, just take an action as following your heart. At the time when you take an action, don’t think how much you can earn from the business. Don’t put it as the first priority though you need to think about it. The key to success is whether you are proud of you can solve the problem.
See, read, and hear new things and use your heart, then pick up one problem which one you are passionate about, which one that touches your heart.
Born in Kampong Cham province. Grown up by the parents who are the seller and learned what the good service is from his young age. After graduated from the high school, come to Phnom Penh and studied management at the Royal University of Law and Economic (RULE). After that, work at Beeline Cambodia for 3 years but left the company and launched CFR with his co-founder.
CFR is established in 2014 for achieving the mission, “To provide Cambodian certified quality rice and support local farming”. Bunlene says that his dream is to make all Cambodian people be happy and have a healthy life with the family through the organic rice.
Also, he founded High Solution Group Co., Ltd and currently works as a commercial director there.
Bunlene was a warm person who can give happiness to everyone. When we went into the room, he kindly gave us a bottle of water to make us relax. And surprisingly, he presented us some gift after the interview over. Moreover, I can easily see how he loves and has pride on Cambodian rice because when I asked some question about the kind of rice, he answered us so happy. While he has such nice character, also has a good management skill. When we contact him, he reply us so quickly. The one who can react customers’ or business partners’ voice like him must be a good business person.
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