I remember arriving as a 13-year-old at the edge of the sprawling Khao-I-Dang refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. It was 1979 and tens of thousands of Cambodians had fled over the border—away from the horrifying memories of the Khmer Rouge killing fields.
The scale of the suffering. The enormity of the tragedy. And the dust. The dust. The dust.
The little cottage industry that these Cambodian students started has now produced almost half-a-million dollars worth of product.
It all seems a very long time ago now. The books have been written. The movies made. The trials are over and the central protagonist, Pol Pot, sleeps in the ground awaiting the judgement he escaped while on earth.
There is much good to report. Somehow the Cambodian people have managed to both address their history and move past it. The economy is growing. The population is young—65 per cent are under the age of 30. It’s a land full of vibrance and surging with ambition.
But the nation continues to face daunting challenges. According to the United Nations, 46 per cent of Cambodians live in “multidimensional poverty”. There’s a desire to excel, to expand, to experience and express. But the truth is, opportunities don’t match the number of people searching for them.
But there’s hope. Not in handouts from around the world or even from centrally planned government programs, but in utilising skills, talents and local produce to create high value products fit for the world market. Incredibly, the inspiration for the first company set up in the new Cambodia to produce high quality, locally manufactured products happened in the kitchen of the Cambodia Adventist Mission in the late 1990s. A young Australian and his Filipino mate were volunteering for the Adventist Church at the time.
“We missed peanut butter, so we started making our own,” remembers Ross McKenzie, who is now a medical student at the University of Newcastle. “They happen to have very high quality locally grown peanuts, so my friend and I set to grinding them up. I had no idea where that would lead at the time.”
And where did it lead? It turned out that the Adventist English school Ross was teaching at had recently instituted modest fees. “We didn’t do it for the money,” he says, “but rather to ensure the classes were taken seriously—people tend not to value what they don’t pay for.” Some of the students couldn’t afford even the modest fees and that presented a real challenge. One of the English school’s assignments involved turning the learning into practical campaigns. The students created a campaign to clean up Cambodia, for example. While brainstorming with students another idea came up. How about selling the homemade peanut butter to cover the fees of poor students?
It wasn’t long before a grinder and six kitchen blenders were set up for students to come in on Sundays and make peanut butter. Selling it, however, proved a tougher job. There were five supermarkets in Phnom Penh at the time, and none of them wanted a product manufactured in Cambodia. They simply didn’t believe the quality would be there. They were wrong. Ross had made it a priority to ensure that everything was made to the highest standards. “If you focus on quality, the customers will come,” he told his students.
Eventually they cracked one supermarket. To the owner’s surprise, the peanut butter flew off the shelves. Soon they were in every supermarket in Phnom Penh and growing into corner stores around the city. “God put me in Cambodia at just the right time,” reflects Ross. “It was just so free and open—anyone could have come along and started a venture like this.” Anyone could have. But they didn’t. Adventists did.
Soon there was another problem. Six kitchen blenders weren’t enough to keep up with demand. When they burnt out, new machinery had to be purchased. The South-east Asia Union caught the vision and pitched in $US20,000 to fit out the new machinery. A number of students worked on fabricating the needed stainless steel tables and work spaces. The venture had gone up a notch.
During all the expansion, the company began trading as Vissot, which in Cambodian means “pure”. “The idea is that the products are pure, fresh, from authentic ingredients. But the word also has a spiritual connotation—we wanted to express something not just about the products we make but also the spirit we make them with,” Ross says.
All the while, this micro enterprise that had grown into a serious concern, was changing the lives of Cambodians. Students now had the money to not only study, but had a little to spend. Local farmers now had a new place to sell their produce. The economic multiplier effect of the value added in manufacturing was now contributing to the Cambodian economy rather than to the economy of its far wealthier neighbours.
The little cottage industry that these Cambodian students started has now produced almost half-a-million dollars worth of product. Pretty impressive, considering many of the founding employees came from families who earned less than a few hundred dollars a year. And none of them had a background or training in food manufacturing. Even more impressive than the sales is the growing number of individual lives that have been changed profoundly for the better.
A lady and her husband who lived in a shanty over a nearby swamp, for example, came asking for work. There were no vacancies. But rather than turning her away, she was given a few jars of peanut butter and told if she could sell them and make a profit, she’d be given a few more. No-one expected her to make a go of it.
That was 14 years ago. A lot has changed in the interim. Tragically, the woman’s husband died of AIDS. The company has expanded again; Ross moved back to Australia; Sanitarium and ADRA began an innovative partnership with the company producing fortified foods; and Vissot has diversified from peanut butter alone to everything from noodles to curry pastes. Despite all these changes, however, one thing has remained the same: the woman no-one thought would last more than a couple of days, still has a job, a good job, and is doing good work. And through that job, she has managed to support herself—and her relatives.
That’s the power of a God-inspired idea—an idea that not only results in good food, but good lives.
Today Vissot is expanding to Australia. Of course, selling in Australia is a difficult proposition. They have, with generous help from Sanitarium, jumped through all the Australian packaging regulations. But there’s a much bigger problem. It’s almost impossible for small companies to get new products onto Australian supermarkets shelves. But when you have a great product (see review, p 12), surely there must be a way.
Jomnin, a new not-for-profit organisation promoting Vissot products in Australia, believes it has found one. “We’re looking for people who are willing to do a new kind of mission work,” says Ross, who sits on the board of Jomnin, “We’re importing a crate of boxes of Vissot curry paste. And we’re looking for people around the country to sign up to receive some to sell or give to friends, family members, anyone who loves a great curry—and who doesn’t?”
But most of us don’t want to become curry sales people do we? Before we answer, we might want to think about it. After all, each box of curry paste means more jobs for desperately poor Cambodians. And it also means more money for Cambodian farmers. And finally, all the profits from sales go back to expanding our Cambodian health food business and creating a new Adventist health clinic in Cambodia. That’s an amazing amount of good coming out of a bowl of curry.
Whoever thought that saving the world could taste this good?
To get involved, go to <www.jomnin.org> or send a note to: email@example.com.
Click here to read James Standish’s rave review of Vissot’s Cambodian curry paste.
James Standish is editor of Record and gained a fondness for authentic curry while growing up in south-east Asia.