Essential oil lab provides growth market for local farmer produce

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Lemongrass essential oil produced in Cambodia by HathKal Lab. SUPPLIED

Reaksmey Chhorpon dreamt a seemingly impossible dream. She wanted to become a scientist. Now, as the founder of HathKal Lab, she is using chemical engineering to turn high quality Cambodian crops into 11 kinds of pure essential oils.

Lemongrass, kaffir leaf and turmeric essential oils are just some of the products she makes, creating jobs for Cambodian farmers and developing the chemical engineering and food technology of Cambodia on the international stage.

Chhorpon graduated in chemical engineering and food technology from the Institute of Technology of Cambodia in 2016 and was granted a scholarship to study in the US, before establishing her lab in 2018.

“There were many people around me saying that Khmer products are poor, and we may not be able to do this. In order to silence the naysayers, I established the lab with my own money,” the 28-year-old founder told The Post.

She had observed that Cambodian produce was of high quality, but thought that value could be added to them. She identified one of the main issues with agriculture in Cambodia – some produce has too small of a market and is sold too cheaply.

“So now, not only am I doing something which I love, I am also responding to a wider issue, finding markets for unwanted products,” she said.

She had heard of the famous Kampot pepper, which gained global recognition, but she was unsure of the quality of the Kingdom’s other agricultural products.

“When I started to do my own research, I found that Cambodian land is really fertile. Khmer products are really good – they are unique and I want to add that the quality of my oils reflects this,” she said.

Years of planning

Chhorpon had very little capital and it was three or four years before she was able to produce a product that was ready for the market. She had to gather data in various provinces to determine which areas – and which seasons – would give her the yields she needed to produce her oils.

“It took me a long time to conduct my research. I am producing 11 kinds of oils, but these are just the ones that made it through the whole process – I explored many more options. At first, I focussed on the research, but then I began buying equipment and sought recognition from the Ministry of Industry, Science, Technology and Innovation,” she explained.

With a logo that combines Khmer martial arts and creative science, the company name is derived from the Khmer words “Hath” and “Kal”, meaning hands new and unique, respectively.

“I hope that when these products are one day exported everywhere in the world, people will recognise that they belong to Cambodia, just from looking at the name and the logo,” Chhorpon added.

Today, HathKal Lab sells 10 millilitre bottles of oils for between $10 (lemongrass) and $30 (kaffir lime). It also sells various massage oils.

“Cambodia imports a lot of oils – but most of them are fragrance oils, which are not pure. High-quality pure oils,” she said.

She claimed that her products were of a very high standard.

“When I am asked if we can compete with imported essential oils, I can say that we can. I refer to high-quality essential oils, not the cheaper scented oils,” she added.

The majory of clients bought the oils to scent their homes, used them with massage oil or mixed them with cosmetics.

“During the Covid-19 lockdown period, I received a lot of orders,” she added.

The oil advantage

Some of the oils are used in the same way that their source plants would be. Many people bought the food plant oils, such as rice paddy herb or kaffir lime, as the actual plants are expensive, and hard to find abroad.

“One serving of the herbs could cost a dollar or two, but one bottle of oil contains the essence of 20kg of the herbs, and can be preserved for a long time,” she explained.

It takes one month for most herbs to be planted and harvested, and once harvested they will wither within days. After years of experimentation, her oils have a shelf life of at least two years.

“This means the oils are far more practical than the fresh alternative. I take soon-to-spoil products and preserve them. In addition, I can sell them in any season,” she added.

Rice paddy herb and kaffir lime essential oils are the hardest to produce, but they are unique to Hathkal – no one else is producing them in Cambodia.

“For me, kaffir lime is like gold – it is hard to find. In addition, we need a large quantity. I have to buy at least 100kg of them to produce my oil,” she said.

“Mostly, I sell them to make money to continue my research. So far, most of my customers are Cambodians. I want to secure the local market before I expand abroad,” Chhorpon added.

HathKal Lab gained the support of USAID Cambodia through the Women in Tech Network UNIDO and UNDP Cambodia.

A website has been set up for online orders, in addition to social media sales. The oils are also available at Chip Mong Shopping Mall and Plus Pharmacy.

“We are focussed on digital sales because the overheads are lower,” she said.

Future dreams

Hathkal Lab’s goal is not only to produce essential oils. Its next stage will include the production of teas and soaps with different scents and flavours.

“We started by producing essential oils because they are the key to creating countless other agro-industrial products. They act as a flavour, a scent and a preservative of cosmetics and food. They can also serve as a pain reliever,” she said.

“I want to create a natural cosmetic lab where people can customise products at their leisure. For example, they may want skin cream with the scent of kaffir lime,” she said.

HathkalLab purchases agricultural products from around 100 families in ten different parts of the country. Although the enterprise is still young, she considers her lab a positive influence on the farming community.

“We need to make our entrepreneurs strong, so there is a better market for our farmers – then we can begin offering more value to the agricultural chain,” said Chhorpon.

Her ambition is to turn all agricultural products from all provinces into products that she can produce to provide more work for farmers.

“It sounds ambitious, but that is the path I am on,” she said.

She encouraged the younger generation to think broadly and embrace science and engineering skills as entrepreneurs and job creators.

“Practical skills are very useful for entrepreneurs in Cambodia. It is an agricultural country with a lot of potential, but what we lack are the scientific skills to develop these things and bring them to market,” she said.

“When we begin to produce high value items locally, we will not only add value to our farmer’s products, but will raise the profile of the entire Kingdom,” she added.