By Robert Carmichael
Small-scale farming is a tough occupation, with prices and weather unpredictable and the cost of inputs high. But Nuon Yan knows a good idea when he sees one. When he heard about an opportunity to double the money he was making from black pepper, he jumped at it.
That opportunity is to register the prized variety of pepper that he and neighbouring farmers grow – known as Kampot Pepper – for Geographical Indicator, or GI, status. Kampot pepper is highly regarded by some chefs in Europe and the United States as one of the world’s finest pepper varieties.
If the term GI sounds unfamiliar, the concept itself is much better understood, says Jean-Marie Brun, an advisor at GRET, a French non- governmental organisation involved in getting Kampot pepper its GI status.
The most famous GI product is champagne. In fact, says Brun, GI is what makes champagne champagne rather than sparkling wine. Unless bubbly is grown in a specific part of France to specific rules and meets a certain quality standard, it may not be marketed as champagne.
That, in a nutshell, is GI, and it will work exactly the same way with Kampot pepper. The added advantage is that Nuon Yan and the 130 other members of the newly formed Kampot Pepper Producers’ Association (KPPA) – most of whom are also farmers – decide on the rules and the quality standard.
Brun says any grower who meets the requirements can join the association, and once GI is registered it is protected under World Trade Organisation rules.
"The right to use the name Kampot pepper once it is registered belongs to anybody that complies with a certain number of requirements," says Brun. "The stakeholders decide on the delimitation of the area, how it should be produced and the quality criteria."
Brun explains that farmers like Nuon Yan, who currently earns 2.50 U.S. dollars per kilo for his crop, will likely double their income when GI status is confirmed.
Complying with GI does bring added costs, but Brun says these typically equate to five percent of the extra income. In the case of Kampot pepper, and because it is early days for the KPPA, the costs of compliance are higher than that – currently around 10 percent – but they will decline as more members join.
Farmers like Nuon Yan benefit as a direct result of providing a product that consumers can buy safe in the knowledge that it has attained a certain quality standard and is what it claims to be. But that assurance is worth nothing unless someone ensures the members abide by their own standards.
That policing role is performed by the KPPA itself and an independent auditor. The KPPA is based in a small room in a shady grove five kilometres outside the provincial town of Kampong Trach in Kampot province. KPPA deputy head, En Trou, explains that growers have had a tough time in the past.
"Because they were not able to market Kampot pepper and didn’t have much money, the farmers faced many problems trying to earn enough to support their families," he says. "We also found that other growers were using the name Kampot pepper on their products."
But the advent of GI status, which will be confirmed in a matter of weeks, should start to resolve that. En Trou is confident that the future will be brighter for the association’s members, who currently harvest 14 tons of pepper annually.
"I am hopeful that in another five years we will have increased the number of producers to 150, and be selling between 20 and 30 tons a year," he says.
The man in charge on the government side is Var Roth San, who heads the intellectual property department at the Ministry of Commerce. Among the powers wielded by his department is the power to revoke the GI registration for Kampot pepper should the independent auditor find the KPPA is shirking its role to maintain standards.
"The association must form control within themselves to keep the quality good," he points out. "Therefore the price of GI products increases. If [there is] no control within themselves or by an international organisation, who will believe [that their product is high quality]?"
Var Roth San says getting GI status for Kampot pepper links directly with the strategy of government and donors to reduce widespread rural poverty. Around 80 percent of the country’s people live in rural areas, and more than half the eight million-strong labour force is involved in agriculture, so boosting rural livelihoods is critical for Cambodia.
"We want to create jobs, and we want our poor to get more money from their work in the rural area," he says. "GI law is one thing that will help the poor in the rural areas."
Although GI for Kampot pepper will benefit at most a couple of hundred farmers, the government plans to roll out the initiative for other products too, including palm sugar from Kampong Speu province and honey from the northeastern province of Ratanakkiri. But Kampot pepper will be the first.
Back on his one-fifth hectare pepper plot in Kampot province, Nuon Yan explains that his rice crop has to date generated more income than the pepper he harvests from his 300 pepper vines. Last year he made around 400 U.S dollars from selling 150 kilograms of pepper.
But he is clearly banking on Kampot pepper’s potential.
"If I can sell my pepper for a higher price, then it is possible that one day I could earn more from pepper than from rice," he says.
Nuon Yan has an eye on that future possibility. He will deposit some of the extra money he will earn in the bank and put the rest towards buying more pepper vines. He and the other members of the association are banking that Kampot pepper’s GI status will result in a more secure future for them and their families.
I love how Cambodian pepper is so aromatic. A little goes a long way! I grind it fresh in my mortar to add a spicy zing to many dishes.