Mangoes, jackfruit, durian, bananas—Cambodia is known for its wide variety of fresh fruits, but strawberries are not among them. Two entrepreneurs, however, have taken to high altitudes seeking to make farming the berries a local concern.
But they must first overcome hot and dry conditions unfavorable for cultivating the aromatic fruit, along with skepticism from retailers and agricultural experts uncertain about their ability to grow a high-quality crop.
For Ouch Sambo, a principle at the Don Bosco Technical School in Sihanoukville, perseverance has already proven fruitful.
“We harvested about 20 kilogram of fruit earlier this month,” he said on Thursday, adding that his fruit-farming parents were also among the initial skeptics of the venture’s viability.
“This is still in its experimental stage and is a new experience for me,” he said. “Many people think it is not possible to grow strawberries in Cambodia, but I just wanted to give it a try.”
In February, Mr. Sambo and his Spanish business partner imported two hectares worth of strawberry seedlings from Spain, which they sowed at their plot in Pursat province’s Veal Veng district. But the young plants failed to outlast the heat.
Taking advantage of a drop in temperature last month, the pair planted a second crop that quickly bore fruit.
After posting about his produce on Facebook, Mr. Sambo became inundated with messages of interest from individuals and a supermarket that then purchased the strawberries for $11 to $13 per kilogram.
“Currently, I have many people contacting me to buy the strawberries once they are harvested,” Mr. Sambo said, adding that he planned to eventually extend production to harvest about 100 kg every two months.
He’s not alone in the strawberry market.
In Kompong Speu province, Eiji Izuka has been harvesting 30 to 40 kg of strawberries in the months of December through April from a three-year-old crop he planted within the grounds of his brother’s Vkirirom Pine Resort, located on Kirirom mountain.
The Japanese agro-entrepreneur sells the fruit to the hotel’s clients at $25 per kg, but “when we can grow more we will sell it to other places,” he said, adding that the berries from Japanese seeds were smaller than those grown back home.
Yang Saing Koma, an agriculture expert who recently entered politics with the Grassroots Democracy Party, said previous attempts to cultivate strawberries in the country had struggled to turn a profit.
“Also, whether they can compete with imported strawberries is another question,” he said.
Mr. Sambo and Mr. Izuka are both hopeful of one day vying for shelf space alongside berries imported from countries like Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
But buyers like Sin Pysey, who manages the Aeon Mall supermarket, said it would not be easy.
“For most products, we need to ask the suppliers about their growing process and the seeds they use, to ensure the quality,” he said.
“In other countries, agriculture is industrialized and suppliers classify the quality based on different grades. Here, growers are right at the beginning.”