The year 2021 was a tough time economically, troubled by Covid-19 infections and deaths. However, this failed to stop one woman’s journey. That year, Ly Phearom endeavored to build startup RukkhaLab to produce essential oils, from scratch and alone.
RukkhaLab, which means plant laboratory, works with communities and farmers to increase their income by converting raw materials into products and actively encouraging eco-friendliness.
Phearom, 27, was initially inspired by friends to give birth to RukkhaLab with a desire to create her own business while working as a lab technician at Canadian International School of Phnom Penh.
With her expertise in oil refining, passion for the environment, and willingness to assist farmers, she aimed to generate a steady income from her enterprise.
Believe in own self
"I have many motivators and supporters who encouraged me to start a business, including friends and family. However, the most important motivator for me is my own belief in myself. If you don't have the determination to achieve a real goal and give up easily, especially when it comes to financial challenges, " Phearom told Kiripost in a recent interview.
“Having self-confidence involves having faith in oneself to take action, learn from one's passions and experiences, and seek guidance and assistance from others when needed to solve problems.”
Phearom said she wants to develop a market for farmers to grow the crops that RukkhaLab wants at a fixed cost so that prices will not fluctuate when farmers harvest.
Phearom is currently working with farmers in the provinces of Siem Reap, Kampot, and Battambang to help find markets for agriculture and generate income for farmers.
Cambodia is an agricultural country and a lot of the land is used for farming, however, many products are imported, more than the country exports, Phearom said, adding that this has led to a lot of vegetables on the market, making it hard for some farmers amid low prices.
Essential oils are often combined with other ingredients to create scents and eco-friendly solutions for eliminating bacteria, as well as being used in cosmetics, medicine, and products. Initially, RukkhaLab focused on the eco-friendly and middle-class demographic.
“The entire process for RukkhaLab's products is environmentally friendly, from collecting materials from farmers to refining and packaging, trying not to use plastic, we aim to reduce plastic usage,” Phearom said.
RukkhaLab takes great care to ensure its packaging materials are eco-friendly and sustainable. For example, they use dried plant leaves and paper for their packaging and glass bottles for essential oils.
RukkhaLab's commitment to sustainability is good for the environment and also aligns with the company's values and mission to create a positive impact on farmers and communities in Cambodia.
Phearom said there is currently a smaller market for natural oils compared to chemical oils due to difficulties in distinguishing them based on their odors, colors, and textures. Laboratory testing is required to determine whether oils contain chemicals or not. Additionally, there is a shortage of natural oils in the country.
One person team
The challenge of RukkhaLab is that it is still a small business that uses a small machine for refining and is unable to meet market demand, she said, adding that the operation is not sustainable as she is a one-person team.
However, the product is unique and has the potential to sell well, but the team has not been recruited yet, partly due to financial constraints.
The business has also not expanded due to various obstacles, while the main focus now is the sales of essential oils and building trust among customers.
Creating and discovering the unique qualities of a product can be a powerful way to attract customers and increase demand, which in turn can lead to business expansion and cost reductions through an expanded supply chain, Phearom said.
Phearom started the business using her personal savings and began it on a small scale. She believes in investing in herself and uses her own income and savings to invest in the business.
Although oil production is not yet too popular in Cambodia, the country has a rich history of using plants for various purposes. Many Cambodians use plants to steam but may not be aware of the benefits of natural oils used as well, she said.
“I anticipate that demand will grow in the next five years as more high-income consumers seek natural alternatives to chemical products,” Phearom said.
RukkhaLab offers six types of fragrance oils that can be transformed into various products such as pure oils, diffusers for homes and cars, mosquito sprays, lip balms, massage oils, rolling oils, candles, and cosmetics.
“The big problem is that cheap imported products can be bought, but expensive natural oils make customers consider our products.”
The process of steam distillation is used to extract essential oils from plants, such as lemongrass leaves, Cymbopogon nardus, eucalyptus leaves, orange leaves, and Kaffir lime, which are all abundant in Cambodia.
This natural process involves refining, condensing, and separating the water and oil components without the use of any chemical ingredients. As a result, the essential oils obtained are natural and can be used for a variety of purposes, such as flavoring food and skincare products.
The shelf life of natural essential oil products is typically two years but can be extended depending on the specific plant's product.
Aromatherapy involves using aromatic materials, such as essential oils and aroma compounds, to improve mental and physical well-being. It is used as a complementary therapy to standard treatments.
Essential oils offer health benefits as a natural alternative, although prolonged use is necessary to see results. Aromatherapy is one way to improve daily well-being.
She added that using a diffuser and a bottle of essential oil can help to purify the air and make it easier to breathe. In addition, pure oil can be blended into other useful products.