Southeast Asia is going green. From roofs made of milk cartons, to energy-efficient palm sugar production, cleaner cooking stoves and solar power, the AsiaLIFE team meets a new generation of eco-entrepreneurs. Words and research by Ellie Dyer, Mark Bibby Jackson, Chris Mueller and Lien Hoang.
In a remote corner of Phnom Penh’s Chom Chao district, two men ride a tuk-tuk through a sprawling factory complex that straddles a dusty road. So far, so normal for Cambodia – but examine the scene more closely and something is amiss.
The first hint is the sound, or lack of it. Instead of the loud spluttering engine of a standard tuk-tuk, the vehicle is silent besides a soft whir that hints at its innovative power-source.
Get up close to the colourful windows of the factory itself and you’ll spot a film of tiny black rectangles inside the panes that suggest their secondary use. In a nearby forecourt, the sides of a truck have been opened up like a giant wing to expose as much surface as possible to the bright afternoon sunlight above – yet another clue to the groundbreaking work ongoing at the complex.
For this is one of the most innovative sites in Cambodia, where an Australian company called Star8’s is harnessing the power of the sun in an ambitious solar venture that they believe has the potential to change the way we live.
“I have four kids and hopefully I will have grandkids. I want to make sure, when I close my eyes one day, those grandkids will be able to open their eyes every day to a beautiful world,” explains chief executive officer Jacob Maimon, speaking from the back seat of one of the company’s solar-powered tuk-tuks.
“The way we are going now, I don’t see it happening, unless we all do something, starting with me, you and everyone else,” he adds.
After launching in Australia around three years ago, the energy company has expanded to Cambodia with the help of a local partner, Star8’s managing director Quentin Peng Khim So, and is developing and selling innovative solar-powered transport, along with unobtrusive solar windows, panelling and tiles made of recycled material, in Phnom Penh.
Solar scooters, tuk-tuks and a truck are already being demonstrated on site and a tiny $3,000 solar car called ‘Genius’ is in the works. Production at the factory, which is itself completely powered by the sun and even puts back extra energy onto the grid, is set to begin in a few months’ time.
“We have people coming every day, they don’t believe what they see – they are in shock,” Maimon says, leading visitors through room after room of solar-powered technology, where a small
solar panel unit, capable of powering two lights and one TV by sunlight alone, costs as little as $500.
Such innovation is however indicative of a wider trend. Renewable energy has traditionally been seen as a preserve of developed countries, but this is no longer the case.
Developing countries are jumping on the green bandwagon. “As a result of their improving investment climate and huge consumer base, developing countries are increasingly becoming major players in the manufacture of clean technologies,” states a World Bank report entitled International Trade and Climate Change.
The cost of manufacturing solar cells has reduced considerably over the past five years, explains Dr Piyasvasti Amranand, the chair of Energy for Environment, a Thai NGO that supports projects promoting the use of renewable energy. “People think that solar is expensive. I don’t think that is the case anymore.”
Within ASEAN, it is Thailand that is leading a green path for others to follow. The country was one of the first in Asia to introduce a comprehensive feed-in tariff programme, whereby independent renewable power producers receive a top-up payment from the government for the electricity they produce – added to that paid to them by the power utility companies.
The woman most responsible for the Thai “solar gold rush” is Dr Wandee Khunchornyakong. As chief executive officer of Thailand’s largest solar farm developer, SPCG, she has at least 23 solar farms currently online with a further 13 due for completion this year.
With net monthly profit from the first 22 farms running at 45.5 per cent, according to company data, the solar market is clearly booming. Yet, when Dr Khunchornyakong first visited the Provincial Electricity Authority to purchase a solar farm licence, most people thought she was crazy.
“At that time nobody believed grid-connected solar systems could work commercially,” she says. Instead of ending up with one licence, she walked out with 34 – two further licences were added at a later date – and, after a fight, received financing from Kasikorn Bank in 2003.
The woman dubbed “the solar queen of ASEAN” is now driven by a desire to lead her country out of the “energy crisis” that she says will engulf each nation in the region over forthcoming years as the cost of energy from imported fossil fuels rises.
Yet despite the clear potential for solar power in Southeast Asia, today’s reality is that renewable energy remains in its infancy in many developing Asian countries.
In Cambodia, around 71 percent of energy is sourced from biomass – namely wood, charcoal and rice husk – according to the Group for Environment, Renewable Energy and Solidarity (GERES). “Even garment factories are using wood,” explains Camille Benoist, communication manager for the French NGO.
And regardless of the obvious challenges posed by large-scale issues such as logging and climate change, green schemes that aim to make a difference, however big or small, are being put in place.
GERES hopes to improve the way people use biomass in day-to-day life, therefore reducing the risk of energy poverty, cutting household costs and lessening the toll on the environment.
The organisation has spearheaded a project that encourages independent pottery producers in Cambodia’s Kampong Chhnang province to develop and make more fuel-efficient household stoves. Priced from $1.50 to $5 depending on the model, the stoves have become desirable items and more than 3 million have been sold since sales began in the early 2000s.
“It’s green growth for us, but for them [consumers] it’s access to something a bit better to cook on,” Benoist says, highlighting that households can save money on fuel and the stoves produce less smoke. “And you have this nice little object that you’re proud to own.”
Other initiatives include moves to encourage more efficient charcoal production in Kampong Chhnang, Pursat, Battambang and Kampong Speu provinces, and the introduction of forest management plans in some areas.
“The impact of intervention is, of course, environmental, but when you look at the big picture it’s a lot of social and economic impact,” adds Benoist. “If you want it to be sustainable, your business model must be strong.”
An entrepreneur that is putting that mantra into practice is former GERES employee, 31-year-old Sourn Narein, who is now the executive director of eco-friendly business Sovannak Palm Sugar.
The brand was initially developed by GERES but has since been transformed into a private enterprise led by Sourn. Each weekend, he buys palm sugar from 10 provincial producers in Kampong Chhnang.
They use fuel-efficient stoves, which can burn 30 percent less wood than traditional models, to boil filtered palm juice harvested from trees and then transform it into caramel-coloured sugar granules, which are more valuable than the basic sugar paste traditionally made in the area.
The business checks the sugar’s quality in Phnom Penh to ensure no flowers or leaves are present, then packages the granules before selling the product on to supermarkets, including Thai Huot and Lucky, bakeries such as Blue Pumpkin, mini-marts, souvenir shops and some international buyers.
The business has green credentials, but also aims to improve sugar producers’ livelihoods by stablising palm sugar prices, which can fluctuate throughout the year. “With these more efficient stoves, it consumes less wood, and also when they make palm sugar it’s more hygienic. It has a chimney so the smoke goes up,” Sourn says.
“We can buy [granulated sugar] from them at a higher price than paste,” adds the businessman, speaking from his office near Russian Market, stacked with huge bags of sweet-smelling sugar. “We want to grow, happily, together.”
Building For The Future
Regional entrepreneurs are also using their green credentials to ensure that another key element of society – housing – is as energy efficient and environmentally friendly as possible.
According to the UN Environmental Programme, buildings contribute around
40 percent of the world’s energy use and produce one third of greenhouse gas emissions. The agency believes that green construction could yield “enormous opportunities” in rapidly expanding developing countries.
In Vietnam, one project leading the way has seen Dong Tien packaging and paper company use recycled milk cartons to provide shelter from the elements.
Company chairman Hoang Trung Son explains from his Ho Chi Minh City office that Dong Tien starts by buying the milk cartons from ad-hoc street collectors, kindergartens and day-care centres after their traditional use has been exhausted.
“If we don’t recycle the boxes, the only two solutions are to bury or burn them,” Son says, after handing over his light-brown business card made of recycled paper.
The cartons are then washed, dried and pressed at a factory in Binh Duong province.
Next, the combination is mixed with aluminum, yielding a silver finish complete with rainbow blotches from the milk packaging. Dong Tien, which traditionally made packaging material for industrial clients, also turns the cartons into paper bags, as well as providing roofs for farms and factories.
“When we introduced it, people were really surprised and excited,” Son says. At the same time, customers worried that the roofs would be more flimsy than what they were used to.
In response, the company produced marketing materials that show a car can drive over the roof without damaging it. Son also says the wavy roofs do a better job of keeping out heat and noise.
But Dong Tien isn’t the only company focusing on green construction. A growing number of buildings in the region are displaying eco-friendly credentials.
In Cambodia, GERES offers an independent carbon auditing service that calculates the carbon footprints of organisations, raising awareness of climate change among staff and providing practical recommendations to reduce carbon consumption and costs. Both ANZ Royal bank and the French Embassy have used the service.
There are projects around the region that are transforming living arrangements. Vo Trong Nghia and his namesake Vietnamese architectural firm have gained press attention for his ‘stacking green houses’.
The homes were designed as a typical Vietnamese high and narrow ‘tube’ house, but use various techniques – such as shade from trees and natural materials that reflect heat – to keep the building cool and energy efficient. One major upside is the $150,000 price tag, which is only slightly more expensive than the average Vietnamese home of the same size.
Nghia has gone on to develop numerous projects throughout Vietnam and has been nominated for several architectural awards. “I want to have as much green on the earth as we can, everywhere we can,” he told AsiaLIFE HCMC.
It seems a similar viewpoint to the solar entrepreneurs in Cambodia’s capital.
“It’s gorgeous,” says Star8’s Maimon, standing on the roof of the factory building, covered in solar panels, as sunset falls. “You know the beauty of this? I show the world it can be done. Now it’s your choice.”