Green Business Grows, But Still a Rich Niche

Green businesses are sprouting up in Cambodia with ideas ranging from biodegradable grocery bags to coconut-husk briquettes, but many of the products maintain a largely luxury appeal geared toward foreigners.

Traction among Cambodians for products with green credentials has been sluggish due to a “lack of awareness” over environmental concerns, said participants at a green-business forum in Phnom Penh on Saturday.

“When talking about a developing country [of people] who don’t have much to spend on food, it’s difficult to introduce a concept that requires more money than they are spending,” said Alicia McCartney, the American founder of Kamask, which produces a reusable face mask with an activated carbon filter that protects the wearer from dust and pollution.

In two months, Kamask has sold about 200 masks priced between $8 and $10 depending on the design, Ms. McCartney said, adding that the company was exploring plans to reduce production costs.

Most of her current customers are foreigners. There is a large untapped market of wealthy local residents, but language barriers have been a key challenge in spreading the word about the product, she said.

“There’s a wide range of incomes, especially in Phnom Penh. There are a lot of people that are very wealthy, and these people are driving the organic grocery store [trend] and focusing on healthier lifestyles,” Ms. McCartney said. “It’s going to start with wealthier Cambodians who are going to buy this product first.”

Kai Kuramoto, the American founder of Cleanbodia, which produces biodegradable bags from cassava, said there was a notable lack of awareness and education around issues of environmental impact.

“That’s not what most businesses here were taught. It hasn’t been a concern for what they’ve been doing for the last 15 years—how one person can damage the entire country,” Mr. Kuramoto said.

“Our clients right now tend to be foreign businesses. I think it’s because most foreign businesses come from places that understand that their own country is changing and getting away from plastic quickly, and they have an idea to take part in that.”

Cleanbodia, set up about a year ago, charges about two to three times more than oil-derived plastic for its cassava-based bags that degrade in five years, he said.

Among the more established green businesses in Cambodia is Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise, founded in 2008 to produce recycled charcoal briquettes from coconut shells in order to reduce the impact of deforestation.

Chief executive Carlo Figa Talamanca said he was able to sell mostly to Cambodian businesses —estimating his local client base at 95 per cent—because his prices were competitive with traditional charcoal fuel.

The product’s environmental credentials mattered little, he said.

“They don’t buy it because it’s environment-friendly, but because it’s good quality—no smoke,” Mr. Talamanca said. “Some customers don’t even know it’s environmentally friendly.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Talamanca, an Italian, said he was convinced green business was the future, including in Cambodia.

“Maybe not now—companies that are polluting are still competitive—but in five to 10 years if you aren’t able to change, [your] company won’t be able to grow,” he said.

Saturday’s event was held as part of an international movement for “Ecopreneurs for the Climate,” organized around the upcoming Climate Change Summit in Marrakech, Morocco, next week.

The Marrakech conference is set to follow up on the Paris Agreement on climate change drafted in December that hopes to curb carbon emissions and put a brake on global warming.

Cambodia has yet to sign the climate treaty, but officials said last month that the proposal was before the Council of Ministers and a commitment was expected by the end of the year.

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