Monday, January 18, 2016

Last of the Excursions and Meetings

Royal Palace
Today was the first time I have ever visited a royal palace that is still a residence. Since the palace was only built about a century ago (which, in the grand scheme of things, is still pretty recent), it was still beautifully intact.

The palace is so new because during the Khmer Empire, the capital was in Siem Reap. Then between 15th to 19th centuries, the capital moved around the country as Khmer Empire was in decline, finally settling in Phnom Penh in 1863 after the implementation of the French Protectorate. The palace was built next to some sacred Buddhist grounds where fresh water still flows today.

We saw the throne hall, the structure where the King used to mount his elephants, museums housing royal regalia, as well as numerous pagodas where the ashes of previous royal family members rest. Except for the royal residence, the palace grounds are open to the public and the beautifully kept grounds provide a respite from the busy streets outside. 

Meeting with the Distributor
In the afternoon we had our last in-country meeting. We met with one of the distributors with whom Kirirom works in order to gain an outside perspective and assess where Kirirom stands in the market. After a brief Q&A with the COO, we toured the facilities. It was a perfect way to wrap up our meetings as we start dissecting all the information and dive into the case study.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Bargaining and BBQ- Khmer style.

On Saturday morning, Kirirom staff member Sok Lee lead us through the maze that is the Russian market in Phnom Penh.  We wanted to see what a real market looked like, and Sok Lee was a perfect companion.

We shopped for souvenirs, and practice our bargaining skills while we were at it - some more successful than the others. It was interesting to see that this was a huge market for export-reject goods. Having experienced similar markets in China, east Africa and India, we weren't surprised but the familiarity of the brands from supermarkets back home made us think about the relative value of resources- both labor and raw materials.
Khmer string puppets at the Russian Market

We continued our exploration of new fruits as we tried mangosteen - what the locals call milk fruit- for the first time.

In the evening, we were invited to a holiday part at Kirirom. All the staff members attended the party along with their families. There was some great barbecue (along with delicious eggplant for the vegetarians amongst us) and music. It was heartening to see that at Kirirom, camaraderie extends beyond the office.

With our final presentation only three days away, it's now time to start putting words to all the experiences we've had so far!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Exploring Kirirom

Thol explains mango ripening to Martha.
After a lovely 2 night stay at the farm we started our last morning talking with Thol, the mango broker that KFP uses.  He explained the process used in collecting mangoes and distributing them to the proper customer. His main customers are a Thai importer who sells both fresh and processed mangoes, Vietnamese and Korean fresh importers, and KFP. Sixty days after the trees flower, he goes to the farm and looks at the green mangoes. Depending on the status of each of the individual fruits, they are either sprayed with a fertilizer or a paper bag is put around the fruit to protect it during the ripening process.  Thirty days later he returns to the farm and, if the mangoes still seem to be in good condition, he places a deposit with the farmers in order to secure first access to their crop. He later brings his own harvesting team to the farms to insure quality care and allow for proper sorting.

Friday morning mango walk.
From left: Sok Ly, Elif, Martha, Dalis, Juliana, Mr. Lean, Amruta, Thol, Pros.

A bumpy van ride up the mountain!
From left: Holy, Sok Ly, Martha, Elif, Juliana, Amruta, Margaret
Each country has different specifications on the level of chemicals that is permitted.  Korea has the strictest regulation so most of the mangoes they received are the bag ripened fruits. The Thai and Vietnamese importers prefer a greener mango because the fruit will ripen during shipping.  KFP prefers a mango that is left on the tree longer in order to gain a higher natural sugar content. Additionally, KFP receive delivery of the mango the same day it is harvested so there is less  transportation risk.   KFP is also able to accept mangoes with slight blemishes because that portion of the fruit can be cut out before drying. 

Bungalow picnic.
From left: Pros, Holy, Elif, Juliana, Martha, Amruta, Margater, Sok Ly.
After the meeting, the team along with Holy, Sok Ly, and Pros, the farm manager, went to visit the nearby Kirirom National Park.  It was a beautiful drive up the mountain and at the top we stopped at a popular picnicking spot. When we got out of the van we were greeted by a woman selling flower crowns so we all got to embrace our inner flower child.  After exploring the riverbed we had a Khmer picnic in and open-walled bungalow and relaxed in the hammocks.

Flower crowns and hammocks :)
From the Kirirom region we returned to Phnom Penh.  Dalis informed us that all of the Phnom Penh based employees meet to play soccer at 7am on Saturdays.  Juliana and I decided that we wanted to participate, so bright and early the next morning we were on our way to the futbol field.  There were 16 people there, including Dalis and her 7 year old son, for a fun game largely dominated by 4 people who actually had skills.  The rest spent the hour jogging around, joking, and laughing. Dalis said she organizes it just to get her staff to get up and exercising, and because everyone really seems to enjoy it.  We both had a great time and were pretty sweaty by the end; a morning well spent! Next stop: the Russian Market.
Soccer group, thumbs up from Dalis!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Data Collection & Local Farm Visits

Employees at KFP peeling
Waking up this morning the team was rallied to begin our excursion into some rural towns near the factory to visit local farmers in Kampot Province.  These farmers are contracted out by Kirirom Food Production [KFP] for their production of mangoes.  Just before leaving the grounds of KFP we were invited to observe the production line process of peeling the mangoes.  We suited up in our hair nets and lab coats to engage with some of the workers during their daily activities.

Kim and her husband at local farm
Then we hopped back into the van and began a very bumpy ride.  Some of us caught up on extra sleep while others conversed with the international sales manager, Sok Ly, and farm manager, Chhouk Sorprathna, better know as Pros.  The first farm was bustling with chickens, ducks, and dogs traversing the grounds.  Kim Sokhorn, the owner, greeted us warmly and gave us a tour of some of the grounds where she has 1,600 mango trees.  After asking some questions, collecting quotes, and taking photos for the new website, Kim invited us into her home to try sugar palm fruit.  We thanked her for welcoming us to her home and farm.
SMART team, Sok Ly, and Kim

The next farm about 20 minutes away was located in the Tek Tal Commune.  The owner, Mr. Chea Ly, started the farm originally in 2005 growing sugar palm.  However, the process was too technical and he decided to switch to growing mangoes in 2007 and has been doing so since then.  After our tour we were offered to try sour green mangoes.  Sok Ly pulled out a huge knife to expertly peel the mango and shared it amongst all of us.  Two of us had never tried sour green mango before and were surprised by the tangy taste and crunchy bite.

Sok Ly using a hatchet to peel a green mango
This was our second day of home-stay with the Chhorn family.  When we arrived in the driveway Dalis, one of the sisters, greeted us warmly to lunch.  The table was filled with a variety of options including fried river fish, sautéed beef and peppers, fresh vegetables, potato soup, and rice.  We all eagerly awaited dessert though: an array of colorful, local, tropical fruits like longan, jackfruit, red dragon fruit, papaya, and banana.

Array of dishes for lunch at the Chhorn household

The SMART Team was also lucky to not only have many employees of KFP to share the meal with but also Jojo, who is the director of the agriculture department of the Asian Productivity Organization [APO].  Jojo explained that he was working on a seminar about eco-tourism and entertained us with new agricultural techniques like watermelons grown in crates that give the fruit "faces".

Post lunch the team took a quick nap and got back to working on the presentation for KFP, while snacking on dried mango of course!  Then we had another meeting with Dalis to confirm some of our findings and inform her on the progress we have made thus far on the final presentation for KFP.

Dinner was shared again with the family and employees.  We found a huge gecko in the backyard, stargazed, and shared stories from our hometowns!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Visiting the Kirirom farms and factory

Today, on our third day on the project, we visited Kirirom Food Production's factory and mango farms. After almost four months of having known about the company, we were excited see it for ourselves. And ofcourse, we were looking forward to seeing almost 80 hectares of mango farms owned by Kirirom.

And we were not disappointed! One of the highlights of the day was meeting Chhron Dallis, one of the three siblings of the Chhron family and the Managing Director of Kirirom. Her passion and energy were infectious. One could sense her connection with the factory workers by her modest attitude. On reaching the factory which is located in the eponymous mango-producing region of Kirirom in the south-west of Cambodia, Dallis gave us a tour. One by one, we were introduced to the various steps through which a mango is processed- from the time that it is received from the farms till the last step when it's packaged. Although the visit sparked many more questions about the operation of the factory and the procurement process, we were definitely impressed by the high standards of hygiene and quality followed by Kirirom.

After the tour, we were introduced to a new product that Kirirom was trying out for the first time exclusively for a Korean entrepreneur. As simple as an idea for mangoes can get, it is a mango on a stick. We all tried it and felt that it was a great replacement to having mangoes all year round- and perfect for those of us who are vary of the sugar content in ice-creams and popsicles.

In the evening, we saw the canteen, the volleyball field and the dormitory meant for the workers. The satisfaction of working at Kirirom was visible on their faces. At the end of the day, we came away feeling happy that the project is striving hard to live by the values of integrity, trust and the love of mangoes!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Getting to Know Kirirom Food Production

Yesterday and today, we had our first set of meetings with the KFP sales team based in Phnom Penh. Vimol is one of three siblings who help run the family business as the Director of Sales and Marketing. Nakry and Sok Ly, responsible for international sales, were also present in giving us an overview of the company, from its origins as a mango farm in 2002 to building the first commercial scale dried fruit factory in Cambodia in 2013.

Kirirom built the factory as a response to the oversupply of mangoes during picking season and as a way to prevent waste by utilizing fruits that are not good enough for the market - those with broken or impure peels or overripe ones. Today, the factory produces dried mangoes, papayas, and pineapples.

Vimol explaining the pros and cons of different packaging
From left: Nakry, Vimol, Sok Ly, and Juliana
Short visit to the KFP offices
From left: Amruta, Elif, Margaret, Martha, and Juliana

Of course, there was also a product sampling portion to our meeting. Kirirom produces three types of dried mango (ranging from sour to sweet, all natural to sugar added products) as well as dried papayas and pineapples. We may be biased, but everyone at the table thought these were the best dried fruit products we had ever tasted. The Kirirom products taste much more natural and have better flavor than others we have tried. Our supermarket visit confirmed that KFP products are the top shelf, high quality products, available at the local and high end supermarkets.

Kirirom endcap at Aeon supermarket

Finally, after a long day of work, we took advantage of the 9th floor swimming pool in our hotel to take in the view of the city at night and ended the day with a lovely sunset swim. Tomorrow our team heads to the Kirirom factory and farms in the countryside to see first hand the production process.

Beautiful sunset view from the hotel

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Day 1 in Phnom Penh

The whole group has arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, and we started our trip with a day of sightseeing. Our first day gave us an opportunity to look at the history of what is today Cambodia, from the pre-Angkor period to the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

We met our tour guide, Hong, early in the morning and determined an itinerary starting at Tuol Sleng, the national genocide museum. The facility was converted from a 4 building high school under the Khmer Rouge rule in 1975 to a prison and torture facility called S21.  The Khmer Rouge inflicted a countrywide genocide affecting the entire population and killing over 2 million people in under 4 years, about one-fifth of the population at the time. The facility housed VIP prisoners: those with advanced degrees, politicians, and even former commanders suspected of treason. The other buildings were sectioned into smaller cells that housed men, women, and children prisoners. The Khmer Rouge rule was abolished by the Vietnamese in 1979 and many survivors continue to tell their stories today. When the prison was liberated, there were only 7 survivors, 2 of whom are alive and were at the museum selling their memoirs.

From the museum, we continued to Cheung Ek, to see first-hand the killing fields about 15 km outside of the city.  This was the final destination for many of the prisoners from S21. Prisoners arrived blindfolded, by bus about twice per month.  Victims were slaughtered and thrown in mass graves.  Around 20,000 people were killed and buried in this killing field and there are many others situated throughout the Cambodian countryside.  Today a Buddhist Stupa holds over 5,000 skulls that have been excavated from the grounds, bones and clothing continue to be exposed.  It was poignant to learn about the significant loss this country has witnessed so recently. Although it was an emotionally charged way to start our trip, it was an important part of history to keep in mind as we move forward.

After leaving the killing field, we went to a lovely lunch to process all that we had seen that morning. After a delicious meal of pineapple fried rice, we continued to the National Museum to learn about the three time periods of Khmer history: Pre-Angkor, Angkor, and Post-Angkor. As our very enthusiastic and knowledgeable docent explained, the museum holds several original temple fixtures as there is limited protection at the actual temple locations in Siem Reap.  We learned about the history of both Hinduism and Buddhism in Cambodia and were exposed to several statues depicting the gods and their Cambodian interpretations.

We wrapped up the day with an internal team meeting to discuss the direction of the first day of meetings with Kirirom starting tomorrow. We are really excited about starting our project!