Di Vichra, the founder of PHKA Doung Handicraft, aims to address the issue of migration and create employment opportunities for local residents through her business.
Previously involved in marketing imported food and beverages, Vichra noticed that foreign countries utilized various pure oil spices. Inspired by her online business experience and entrepreneurship lessons from Support Her Enterprise (SHE) Investments, a social enterprise that supports women-led micro-small enterprises in Cambodia, she realized that simply generating profit without considering the country's economy would not benefit the younger generation.
Motivated by her observations and with Cambodia home to an abundance of coconuts, Vichra decided to establish her own business. She recognized the potential of coconut oil production, analogous to the exportation of olive oil in other countries. Despite Cambodia's lack of olive trees, the nation boasts many coconut trees.
“In countries with olive trees, they can produce olive oil. Cambodia is rich in coconut trees, so why don't we produce coconut oil for export as they do with olive oil?,” the Cambodian social entrepreneur told Kiripost in a recent interview.
After that she conducted research on coconut oil production within ASEAN countries, such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, which are renowned for their palm oil exports, Vichra discovered a variety of coconut oil types based on their distinct characteristics. Drawing inspiration from her findings, she successfully developed and tested a coconut oil product known as PHKA Doung.
PHKA Doung Handicraft is a social enterprise producing chemical-free virgin coconut oil from fresh coconuts. Founded in 2018, the social business aims to create job opportunities in the founder's hometown, raising additional income for people, and protecting the environment. The business purchases ripe Khmer coconuts, packages them in Khmer woven baskets, and sells pure coconut oil.
Vichra, 30, from Kampong Chhnang province, has established a business that revolves around the abundant coconut resources in Cambodia. By purchasing thousands of coconuts, she has formed a community of elderly women who skillfully weave homemade "smok" packaging. Smok is like boxes woven with palm leaves or other tough leaves, and used to package their products.
Vichra said, “Cambodia heavily relies on neighboring countries for packaging materials, hindering the export potential of Cambodian products that even the packaging we can make depends on domestic products.”
However, her business has encountered several challenges. Many Cambodians are not aware of the cost of using environmentally-friendly packaging, and the use of smok may sometimes lead to debris or coconut oil stains, resulting in customer dissatisfaction.
She added that although some social enterprises adopt smok packaging to promote eco-friendly practices, the use of plastic and bio-packaging materials still persists, as only some have fully adapted to sustainable alternatives.
In terms of international market opportunities, Vichra has faced limitations due to resource constraints and inadequate regulations. While she has managed to expand her product presence in countries including Korea, Japan, and France, the market size remains small.
Cambodia's coconut tree resources are not as abundant as in other coconut oil-producing nations, such as the Philippines, resulting in a limited supply. Additionally, the Cambodian market has a small population with limited knowledge of palm oil consumption and restricted income levels.
Vichra emphasizes that her intention is not to assign blame but to encourage a greater understanding of the benefits of using coconut oil. Coconut oil is not a medicinal product but a necessary component for our body's needs.
“I do not blame anyone, as we still have a certain level of development. We only encourage them to understand more about the benefits of coconut oil. Coconut oil is not a medicine, it is a part of our body's needs," she said.
Each type of natural oil, such as olive oil, sesame oil, soybean oil, and coconut oil, offers specific benefits. Coconut oil, in particular, has various applications, such as aiding digestion and weight loss when consumed, enhancing vitamin absorption when used in cooking, and providing moisturizing and nourishing properties for the body, face, and hair.
Despite the existing challenges and limitations, Vichra said she remains
“hopeful for the future and urges Cambodians to consume more healthy oils and fats to combat cancer and to comprehend the numerous benefits associated with oils and fats".
Vichra envisions a future where Cambodian coconuts can be utilized as a zero-waste and circular business, allowing the production of various coconut-based products, such as coconut oil, coconut flour, packaging, and desserts.