PHNOM PENH – Taking a break from her job of sifting through sacks of soya beans, Cambodian Chea Bunna sighs as she remembers foraging for frogs and crabs in rice paddies to fill her family’s stomach. Now she supports them by working in the kingdom’s first long-life soya milk factory.

The 59-year-old with cataract-clouded eyes is among 52 employees at the plant in the capital. Many lived in shelters or homes run by a Swiss-based charity, Hagar, before it turned its hand to business and provided them jobs.

"I have saved some money, so my life is getting better. I rent a house and my children go to school," says Chea Bunna, using a pseudonym.

Chea Bunna did not make it past first grade, survived the horror of Pol Pot’s killing fields and now has her three children and two grandchildren living with her. It was women like her that Pierre Tami had in mind when he set up Hagar Soya, originally a micro-enterprise producing fresh soy milk, in 1998.

Today the company is spearheading a drive to get a fortified version into the hands of malnourished schoolchildren and is also set to diversify into other beverages by the end of the year.

The micro-enterprise started out selling about 500 litres a day of soya milk and tofu locally, giving dozens of poverty-stricken women work and a newfound purpose. But Tami, Hagar’s executive director, thought they could go further.

He wanted to provide Cambodian children — who suffer among the highest malnutrition rates in Southeast Asia — with a healthy drink that would encourage them to attend school.

"When the idea came to actually being able to put fortified soya milk in the hands of every child in rural areas, I was told: ‘You’ve got to have proper packaging … otherwise how would we ever get your milk out to the provinces?’"

That meant a serious transformation — including a 1.3-million-dollar investment — with assistance and financial help from the World Bank’s Mekong Private Sector Development Facility among an array of backers.

"When you insist on a high-quality product and high-quality management, top governance and transparency, then knowing the context of Cambodia, you are bound to find a lot of obstacles," Tami says of the war-torn nation, where peace arrived only in 1998 after nearly three decades of conflict.

"It’s been like taking a rough ride on an oxen cart from here to the provinces where basically the road is filled with big potholes and big stones and it takes a lot of effort to remove those stones."

The stones have represented everything from the kingdom’s notorious corruption to its low skill base and a complete lack of home-grown materials, barring the soya beans themselves which are bought from local farmers.

"Everything is imported — sugar has to be imported, the packaging, and of course all of the machinery was imported," says Tami, adding that tradesmen even had to be brought from Vietnam to do welding.

In 2003, the company was fully commercialised and it now has a daily production capacity of 12,000 litres (more than 3,000 US gallons). Employees earn 70 to 110 dollars a month, a decent salary in a country where average annual per capita income is just 290 dollars.

"People are usually impressed by the machinery — it’s state-of-the-art technology — but actually we should be very impressed that former street women, former street kids and abused women in brothels are running that machinery right now," Tami says.

The model for Hagar Soya has the thumbs up from commerce secretary of state Sok Siphana, who argues it provides an example for hundreds of non-government organisations here to generate employment producing top-notch products.

Cambodia’s youthful population of 13 million faces a bleak employment future, with about 250,000 new entrants to hit the labour market each year over the next decade and only two sizeable sectors: garments and tourism.

"They have been able to make a product that is internationally competitive. I cannot say that about many other Cambodian products, which are struggling not to produce, but to be up to international standards," Siphana says.

"It’s not enough to have a product, it’s not enough to just develop your raw, natural resources."

Hagar Soya’s flagship product So! Soya is now supplied to more than 500 wholesalers and retailers while eight new beverages — being kept under wraps for now — are slated to hit shelves later this year.

And, finally, a fortified milk for children has been developed.

Hagar donated 5,000 cartons to a rural school last month while a pilot program for 50,000 schoolchildren to regularly receive milk is on the drawing board. An ultimate dream of supplying two million children waits to be fulfilled.

The concept has the backing of workers such as Chea Bunna.

"It’s a very good idea because it could help the poor," she says. Plus, she confesses, she loves the drink herself: "I drink the soy milk a lot so I’m getting fat. In the past — I used to be so thin!"

/ Current Affairs