Cultivating Vanilla to Innovate Cambodia’s Agriculture

Chan Dara is aiming to innovate Cambodia’s agriculture landscape by introducing the high-value vanilla, using horticulture techniques to grow the crop in controlled conditions
Chan Dara believes vanilla has a lot of potential in Cambodia. (Kiripost/Siv Channa)
Chan Dara believes vanilla has a lot of potential in Cambodia. (Kiripost/Siv Channa)

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PREAH SIHANOUK - “Welcome to Sihanoukville,” says Chan Dara with a large smile on his face and a firm handshake. Amid strong wind and rain, Dara was introducing his research on vanilla crops inside a controlled temperature nursery on a more than 10-hectare plot of land.

“You can produce 2,000 pounds of dry vanilla beans per hectare, with a market value of $300,000 to $400,000 per hectare,” Dara said. 

Since December, Dara has embarked full-time on this new adventure in Cambodia, and every day he said it is surreal. 

The hunt for vanilla has been long, challenging and expensive. Dara said that while people started growing the plant about 10 years ago, no one has yet reached high volumes of output. 

“No one has grown, like, one hundred kilos yet; maybe 10 kilos seems like a lot. [There are] many challenges,” Dara said. 

“I am not a marijuana person”

Dara completed a Master’s degree in Agribusiness in 2018. He then moved to Silicon Valley - the US-based global center for technology and innovation -, where he attended many AgTech conferences and events. 

While living there, Dara discovered there were two main industries that were of interest. One of them was wine and the other was the self-driving industry. 

Wine was already a mature industry and there was not much room for innovation, Dara recalled. “They had cannabis, but I’m not a marijuana person, so I found the self-driving industry,” he said. 

He got into self-driving automobiles working at Aurora Innovation because there were opportunities with a lot of startups. Dara recalls more than 100 startups were in self-driving cars at one point. 

After four years, Dara left the company. At that time only five companies had survived due to economic hardships and fierce competition, with Aurora Innovation having successfully raised $820 million in new capital.

Dara said he took a detour to learn about startups, technology and how to build a company. He had joined Aurora Innovation, which has about 200 employees, and saw it growing. 

At Aurora Innovation, Dara felt it was about time to move onto another subject, saying that when he started self-driving it was new to the market and every car had safety drivers to monitor. By the time he left, they had removed the driver, so the challenge had already been overcome.

“So, I am ready for the next challenge.”

“I bring the best ideas”

Back to Preah Sihanouk, Dara has big plans in Cambodia, hoping that if his research is successful, it will help Cambodian farmers to climb out of poverty by creating a new industry in vanilla orchids. 

“I am very familiar with robotics and AI vision, and now I want to apply the technology to Cambodia; see how I can bring Cambodia into the 21st century. This goes through many steps to reach the highest step. I bring the best ideas here,” he said.

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Dara’s love for horticulture started with these orchids - and is a journey that began within the family. His mother loves orchids and has been growing them for 20 years, sparking his passion as a child. 

Dara’s parents left Cambodia in the early-1980s to a Thai refugee camp. They spent some time in the Philippines before eventually ending up in California. A Catholic church then sponsored his family to move to Tennessee, among many other Cambodians.

His father, Chan Setha, was active in connecting people to one another in the community and even founded a Buddhist temple. 

Dara was born in the US, where he spent his whole life. However, every year, he would come to Cambodia to visit family who still live here. 

His first trip to Cambodia was when he was five-years-old. 

“I come here because I see more potential, Cambodia is quickly modernizing, quickly developing, and we have a lot of good schools here,” he said.

“There are young people with a lot of potential.”

Dara believes vanilla has a lot of potential in Cambodia. It has a very high potential output per hectare, with research from France and Madagascar suggesting that 2,000 pounds of dry vanilla bean can be grown per hectare, with a market value of $300,000 to $400,000 per hectare.

Inside the nursery, Dara’s team adjust the climate to a cooler temperature to prevent insects from destroying the crops and spreading disease.

Farmers often source plants from the field but they contain diseases, viruses, fungus and infections, so after a few years, the quality and yield often reduces. Dara said using technology to plant tissue ensures clean materials that are highly productive. 

“We think we can apply this to many other crops besides vanilla,” Dara said. 

In his nursery, many of the crops come from the US and contain scannable codes that offer information about the species. Dara recalls trying to ship them to Cambodia in February, when an ice storm hit the US and he thought all of the plants would die.

“A lot of people don't believe us”

Despite his fears, the plants did not die and Dara said that in defiance of the many people in Cambodia who did not believe he could cultivate vanilla, he produced flowers within months.

“This is our first flower so it's kind of a special memory for us. Most people don't get flowers until year three. We got flowers in two months, but a lot of people don't believe us.”

Dara and his father are also building landscaping for a vanilla park that will have 12 unique species from around the world, including the US, Mexico, Brazil, and Malaysia.

“We can teach people about biodiversity and nature itself, while we hope to be sustainable, economically productive. We also have a mission to improve the environment and improve our biodiversity.”

Dara said the vanilla park should be finished by December.  

“The reason we want to promote vanilla production here is that it has a very high value and is a high economic potential crop. We hope to improve economic livelihoods by making better jobs, either high value from processing vanilla to making value-added products like perfume.” 

He said that one bottle of perfume costs between $200 and $300 and vanilla can be used as an ingredient in many finished goods. 

Dara added that he is hoping to carve a new market in the farming sector, guaranteeing that plants are clean and virus free. He said he can also support growers with marketing exports. 

“Targeting vanilla is for economic development, and it's one of the top crops for potential in Cambodia.”

“We need to go faster”

Since within a decade no one has reached high output, Dara said he needs to speed up operations.

“We need to go faster,” he noted. “We can bring better research, we can have a more controlled environment, and there’s a lot of people doing it outdoors.” 

He said that Cambodia has a long dry season from October to May and usually the native variant of vanilla has a dry season of only a few months. 

“We have a longer dry season here and it causes stress. The plants get sick so we try to bring some modern technology. We can have sensors so if the temperature gets too hot, sprinklers or fans kick in. We try to use climate control and see if we can accelerate the process and research.”

“We need to create the culture”

Dara said that a lot of vanilla orchids are medicinal and are even more valuable than vanilla beans. They can be processed into medicines such as pills, medicinal teas and extracts.

“We think that locally we need to develop the industry; develop a taste for the product. They put natural vanilla in coffee, tea, and ice cream. We need to create a culture. Twenty years ago, people really didn’t drink coffee in Cambodia.

“Let's teach them how to appreciate it. So, think of developing unique Cambodian valued-added products like vanilla. Or, the national flower of Cambodia is Rumduol. If you look at essential oils, the flavor or smell of oil for Rumduol can’t be found,” he noted, adding there are many opportunities such as these. 

“The marketplace doesn’t exist. We have some unique flowers and plants in Cambodia. We can create products from that and combine them with vanilla to make new perfumes and soaps, and export Cambodian unique products to the rest of the world.”

Dara’s trip to Cambodia in December was to his father’s durian farm in Veal Rinh in Preah Sihanouk province. Here, his father taught him about durian and said that there is a lot of potential for export as the Chinese love the fruit.

“If we look at durian, a lot is hand labor, so I start to look at what parts can we automate? For the green variety, you have to spray a lot of chemicals or else worms eat inside the fruits and make it go bad,” he said, noting there is potential to introduce automation and robotics to ease the required manual labor.

He added that durians have the potential to make about $100,000 per hectare, compared to $400,000 for vanilla.

“It is not cheap”

Dara’s father, Setha, said that vanilla needs to be taken off more as the plant is not cheap and irrigation systems are essential. 

“Farmers have a big problem believing people who sell them the plants. We don't sell the plant, we research to make high-quality plants to help Cambodian agriculture; to help farmers grow better products,” Setha said.

“Don’t borrow money from banks and grow vanilla,” he said. “It is not cheap, it’s eight to 10 bucks a pot.”

Dara said that taking care of vanilla also requires special skills. “It’s not that it’s difficult, it just has unique requirements like any plant. Like if you have a fish or a dog, you take care of the fish and dog differently, so not many are familiar with this crop yet.”

This is the number one reason that some countries have failed in vanilla production. Farmers have to have “very clean protocol; you need to wear gloves, put your boots in bleach,” Dara noted of the strict health measures required. 

Dara reiterated that his team wants to carry out research and remove risks from farmers so they know how to be successful in the field. 

“It's a little early, a bit risky. If you just go in, you’re probably not going to get the money back for about three years, so for small farmers, that's a bit risky.”

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