Startup Promises a Future for Former Boeng Kak Residents

In mid-August, on day seven of production at the Coco Khmer social enterprise, the team experienced a setback.

Temperatures in the fermenting room must remain between 35 and 40 degrees to produce the organization’s virgin coconut oil, but the temperature on that rainy day refused to rise above 29 degrees.

“So we had zero separation of 44 kilos of coconut,” company founder Rob Esposito said in an interview earlier this month at the firm’s new production facility nearby Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak area.

During his 16 years working in film and television in Toronto, Mr. Esposito held a pipe dream of establishing a sustainable business abroad. After six months traveling Latin America and Southeast Asia, Cambodia and its plentiful supply of coconuts struck the 42-year-old entrepreneur as the perfect location for his startup.

“Before I left the industry, I had this idea for a coconut farm,” he said. “I thought about sitting on a beach in a coconut grove relaxing, I think it was just being so stressed, I was creating a mental happy place.”

Coco Khmer, which began operating in August, now trains and employs seven formerly evicted residents from the Boeng Kak lake area to produce quality coconut oil, which is used in cooking.

On the day production faltered in August, Mr. Esposito told his employees they could go home, saying he would pay them for the full day’s work and try to fix the problem himself.

But the workers had other ideas.

“They were convinced that [the problem] wasn’t the temperature. So they asked instead, ‘can we just buy the coconuts off of you and do a test ourselves?’”

Their solution proved semi-successful. The group was able to produce a pure curd, even though the yield for oil came up short and the quality was questionable. But the results were not Mr. Esposito’s focus. “Instead of going home, they chose to do it their way and see if they were right,” he said. “That’s so fantastic.”

While traveling in Phnom Penh in March 2013, Mr. Esposito met with Barb Eason, the cofounder of VOICE, a nonprofit providing support for Boeng Kak residents.

“Barb mentioned to me that she had these amazing women who were eager to find work,” Mr. Esposito said.

Because many are uneducated and from low socioeconomic backgrounds, residents of the Boeng Kak area have difficulty finding work that isn’t exploitive or physically challenging, Ms. Eason told him.

When the duo held a demonstration to discuss the concept of producing 100 percent virgin coconut oil with members of the Boeng Kak community, they expected four families to attend, but instead got seven.

After the demo day in May, three months of training commenced with a core group of six women and one man. Twice a week, the group spent two to three hours per day brewing batches of coconut oil. It took them about two hours to prepare their first bucket of coconut ready for fermentation, but now the team can do it in less than an hour.

Currently, the team produces 8 liters of oil from 100 coconuts per day. The aim is to produce 24 liters from 300 coconuts. Coco Khmer also hopes to employ more Boeng Kak community members as manufacturing expands to incorporate new products, such as soap, beauty products and flour.

The team has already experimented with delectable-smelling scrubs—a mixture of virgin co­conut oil, brown sugar, cinnamon and vanilla and another made of sea salt, virgin coconut oil, lime zest and a touch of lemon essence.

Coco Khmer expects to be making a profit by December, which will go to employees and eventually toward funding a local community center run by VOICE.

So far, sales have been promising. On the first day of production, Mr. Esposito got 12 responses to his online post advertising the oil.

The crew’s workday runs from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with an hour lunch break. Their salary is $5 per day and will increase to $6 after the employees work for Coco Khmer for six months.

Sen Sokheang and her husband, Ban Chek—both polio survivors and Coco Khmer employees—were unable to afford school for their 5-year-old daughter before working for Coco Khmer.

“Since working here it’s gone well and we’ve started planning to send our daughter to school,” Ms. So­kheang said. “When we get paid at the end of the month, that’s what the money will be used for.”

While living near Boeng Kak lake, the couple watched as friends’ houses were torn down. Un­employed and living under poor conditions, Mr. Chek had to shine shoes and scavenge to pay for the electricity, water and food.

“I used to collect all the rubbish from the hotels. Sometimes they gave me cans and bottles. I sold it all to factories, stores and companies and we got a little money,” said Mr. Chek, who is wheelchair bound as a result of polio.

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