Poor levels of investment in Cambodia’s chili industry have lead to a lack of supply for exports abroad and the domestic market, farmers and agricultural experts said this week.
Under pressure from imports of chili from Vietnam, farmers say they are being priced out of the market and are, therefore, turning towards cash crops with more value like corn and cassava.
“We don’t have enough chili to meet [domestic] demand as farmers do not grow chili like they did before,” said Heng Bu Hor, director of the agriculture department in Banteay Meanchey province, adding that last year farmers in his province could not meet demand of about 500 tons from Khmer brokers looking to export chili to Thailand.
“Most people have turned to growing cassava since it is easier to grow,” he said.
The situation five years ago was very different.
Mr Bun Hor said chili used to represent the largest proportion of agricultural exports from Cambodia to Thailand in his area, though data on the actual amount does not exist.
“Vietnam exports more than fifteen tons of chili per day through Neak Leung,” claimed Tuy Reun, a chili farmer from Kompong Cham province, referring to a Mekong River crossing in Prey Veng province.
He said that fresh Vietnamese chili was about 500 riel cheaper than the Cambodian produce, sold at 2,000 riel per kilogram.
“We don’t have enough chili to support the domestic demand,” he said of Cambodian farmers.
Mean Chey, an officer at Kompong Cham province’s agronomy office, remembers the days before Vietnamese imports of chili started to penetrate Cambodia about three years ago.
“Some years, Thai businessmen offered farmers high prices. So much effort was put into growing chili here,” he said.
Today, chili is grown amongst other crops like corn and has gone from being one of the province’s priority agricultural products to a commodity of secondary importance.
Tamtu Navan, chief of Kompong Cham’s agronomy office, estimated that the province had about 250 hectares of cultivated land used for growing chili. But no studies have ever been done in the province–Cambodia’s main production base for chili–to discover the total level of production.
Mao Sareun, chief of Raka Koy commune in the province’s Kang Meas district, said farmers from his commune produced about 1,000 tons of chili every year.
Despite the dire situation the chili industry now finds itself in, Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development, said the industry was salvageable as long as it received some financing.
“Chili could be a valuable product if we had the means of processing it,” he said. “It is important to learn about the market opportunities for chili.”
Dried, or processed chili is worth three times the amount of fresh chili, according to farmers and agricultural experts.
For now, however, the days when lorries full of Cambodian chili were exported across border with Thailand every day is long gone.
“Between 2007 and 2008, I saw big trucks transporting Khmer dried chili from Kandal province,” said Si Thach, a market seller in the province’s Mok Kampoul district. “Lately the farmers prefer to grow corn and sesame to chili.”
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