Coco Khmer was the first in Cambodia to provide high-quality coconut oil, but the company’s goals are even more impressive than its product line. Writer Joanna Mayhew gets a behind-the-scenes look at what keeps the operation greased. Photography by Charles Fox.
Surveying any of Coco Khmer’s products, from sleek rectangular bottles full of crystal-clear liquid to smart rounded tins of massage balm lined neatly on shelves in the country’s high-end boutiques, it would be impossible to guess that the in-demand offerings come from humble beginnings.
In the capital’s Boeung Kak Lake neighbourhood, past graffiti-decorated dilapidated buildings and small shacks, a doublewide Khmer-style house serves as the company’s unassuming factory, where everything from product design and oil production to soap making and packaging takes place.
A handful of workers, outfitted in blue uniforms and brown aprons, share the work of chopping, shaving and squeezing the meat from hundreds of ripened coconuts, piled high outside the door. Amidst them, tubs of oil sit fermenting and purifying, and thin traces of the slick substance line the room’s hodgepodge surfaces.
But the workshop’s location and simplicity is no accident. Operating for more than two years, Coco Khmer began in reaction to the Boeung Kak Lake evictions, when about 3,500 families lost their homes. Some evictees were absorbed into surrounding neighbourhoods, but many – particularly women – remained without work. When a non-profit organisation asked for help in matching these potential workers with sustainable employment, Coco Khmer founder Robert Esposito, who had been researching coconuts on the side for seven years, saw a perfect opportunity. “Sometimes everything just clicks,” says the Canadian.
Thus Coco Khmer was born, setting up operation on a shoestring budget to funnel profits into supporting the team of seven. “We formed the business for social impact, and that’s always our first concern,” he adds.
The company works to ensure employees have good housing, their children attend school, and they have access to healthcare, as well as receive training on practical skills. Workers also gain equity in the company based on their position and length of employment, with the operation slated to eventually be entirely Cambodian run. Unlike many social enterprises, Coco Khmer shies away from advertising these goals – and its product labels give no mention of its history or approach. “I don’t want to use that as a sales pitch,” says Esposito.
But business success has come alongside these impacts. Using the country’s natural resources, Coco Khmer filled a niche as the first producer of virgin coconut oil. While Cambodians have traditionally used coconut oil, the yellow-coloured variety is not purified and loses its health benefits when cooked. By contrast, high-quality coconut oil has a better smell and once processed will retain its benefits – even at high and low temperatures. “To make coconut oil isn’t difficult, but to make good quality coconut oil requires attention to detail every step along the way,” he says.
Coco Khmer now has nine all-natural products, including lip balm, aftershave balm, baby balm, petroleum-free tiger balm, sugar scrub and deodorant, available in more than 20 stores in Cambodia. The company uses local ingredients and incorporates essential oils, such as lemongrass, kaffir lime, rosemary and peppermint. It is also gearing up to launch a naturally infused chilli coconut oil.
By choice, the products, including the coconut oil, are made entirely by hand, using an environmentally-friendly approach. “I wanted the team to learn you don’t need a million dollars to start a business,” says Esposito. “What you need is some knowledge and ingenuity to use the environment around you to make products.”
Developed in the Philippines in the 1980s, the “wet process” uses fresh, grated coconut meat – sourced from small-scale Cambodian farmers – that is pressed, stirred, soaked, fermented, skimmed, filtered, dried and aged. It takes 12 coconuts and two days to produce one litre.
Virgin coconut oil is fast becoming popular in surrounding countries for its health benefits. The oil is antibacterial, antiviral and antimicrobial, and is said to help with upper respiratory infections, intestinal problems and skin care, as well as being an energy source, claims Esposito. Many people eat the oil raw, but for those that find this hard to swallow, it can be added to smoothies, stir-fries and even popcorn.
Just as most middle class Westerners have a bottle of olive oil in their homes, Esposito hopes the growing Khmer middle class will embrace coconut oil. “It’s really an Asian invention, and it goes well with the cuisine,” he says. “It’s something that can be easily incorporated in people’s lives.”
This month, the company will expand by adding semi-manual machinery, allowing production to increase from 600 litres per month to 4,000, to begin exports. It will also open other facilities to create more jobs across the country. Already, a production centre in Kampot, at the heart of Cambodia’s coconut-growing region, provides 75 percent of the company’s oil.
“We really want to be able to show that as a business, we can make a long-lasting difference,” says Esposito.
To get there, Coco Khmer continues to make converts, one spoonful at a time.