Entrepreneur says fertilisers industry must keep growing
After graduating with a Master’s degree in agriculture, Yun Sophat was offered a good job working in Australia. But he always kept in mind that he would return to Cambodia to use his skills to help the Kingdom develop.
“So I turned it down and returned home. I never wanted to leave my country, but knew that when I returned, I would be able to contribute,” Yun Sophat told The Post.
Sophat is currently the founder of a natural fertilizer company which operates a factory in Ksem Ksan commune, Odong district, Kampong Speu province.
He is the fourth of six siblings. His father is the former principal of Prek Krabao Primary School and mother was a housewife in Prek Krabao village, Prek Ampil commune, Khsach Kandal district, Kandal province. Despite his family’s relatively comfortable life, he chose to live in an orphanage in Sre Ambel.
Sophat said that the reason he decided to study at the centre was because he wanted to learn to be self-reliant and think for himself.
He left his family home in 1993, and finished 12th grade in 1999. Due to his dedication to his studies, he was offered a scholarship to the Prek Leap National Institute of Agriculture, where he completed an associate’s degree in agriculture.
Sophat was not satisfied that he had learned enough, and was able to receive another scholarship, this time to the faculty of agriculture at Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand. Upon completing his bachelor’s degree, he was offered the chance to pursue his Master’s degree in Australia.
He said that after graduating with a Master’s in agriculture in 2010, he was offered an excellent position, but rejected the opportunity to continue living and working in Australia. He had promised himself that when his studies were complete, he would return to participate in the development of Cambodia. He decided that even if he was not able to find work in the public sector, he would make a difference in the private sector.
Upon his return, he realised that he did not have the capital to pursue a business in his field. He was unable to find a position in his field, and so his first job was working as an English translator at the US embassy.
After some time in that role, the call of the fields was too strong, and he found a job in agriculture, where he was paid about $300 a month. The work gave him a great deal of practical knowledge, something that his Master’s degree had not, he added.
He still hankered after his own business. He had the ideas, but not the capital. He found a collaborator, but the two businesses they developed collapsed when the man decided he no longer wanted to be in the partnership. These failures were not due to a lack of agricultural skills but because his colleague decided to leave the projects.
Finding himself back at square one, he decided to use the $3,000 he had saved from his salary over the years and try again. This time, he reasoned that he could put his strong agricultural knowledge into practice by converting organic waste into organic fertiliser.
Sophat said he started trying to produce natural fertiliser in 2013, but faced many difficulties, from collecting the raw materials to gaining the trust of potential customers. Each time he failed, he considered it valuable experience, dusted himself off, and tried again.
He said that back when he first began, he could not afford machinery and was having to do all of the work by hand. As the waste he used was taken from wet garbage, it needed to be dried thoroughly before he could use it. On the one hand, this meant he could not work during the rainy season, but on the other the smell of the drying waste in the heat was offensive to his neighbours.
“When I began, some of my friends asked me how I could work with waste if I graduated with a Master’s degree. I did not have many supporters and I did not have a lot of capital. When I went for a cup of coffee at a café, people would move away from me because they could smell that I worked with garbage,” he said.
“I met with a lot of difficulties, but all of the obstacles did encourage and motivate me even more,” he added.
He said that one of the major issues he faced was the inability to produce fertiliser during the rainy season – when demand was highest. This led to a serious cash flow crisis. A lack of machinery also meant that his hand mixed fertiliser was sometimes inconsistent.
“At one point, I was employing 500 workers to do the work manually. I had to provide lunch to all of them, so the overheads were very high. Sometimes, when one or two of them took leave, the whole production line jammed and we could not produce anything at all,” he added.
He said the first few years of the operation were very difficult and the business came close to failing. Fortunately, he found support from a core group of customers who believed in him, and his product. It was thanks to their support that he was able to purchase the equipment he needed to automate production.
His factory, Huy Ton Agriculture Co., Ltd, covers a total area of 3ha and has reduced its workforce from 500 to between 70 and 80 technicians and labourers.
Although there was a reduction in demand during the economic slowdown caused by the Covid-19 crisis, business has recovered well. A surge in demand for organic fertilisers has seen him expand production.
He explained that the waste which they employ in their fertiliser is predominantly oyster shells, beef bones, vegetables and fruit. He has established partnerships which mean he can now purchase a reliable supply.
One of the things that he thinks makes his factory special is that he helps the environment by purchasing natural waste which would likely otherwise be dumped in open fields.
He purchases spoiled vegetables that vendors cannot sell for 100 riel per kg, which means fruit and vegetable vendors are less likely to throw them away.
According to Sophat, his factory produces several products. They include a water-based fertiliser for foliar fertilisation, an agricultural lime fertiliser for soil treatment and a product for disinfecting chicken coops.
Currently, they produce 50 to 60 tonnes of fertiliser per day. If there is increased demand, the plant is capable of turning out more.
He said many of these types of fertiliser need to go through a multi-stage control system, but his lime fertiliser does not. It has many benefits as it is, including killing soil germs, protecting the roots of plants, neutralising soil acids and soil toxins, as well as removing phosphorus from the soil.
He added that natural fertilisers improve, loosen and oxygenate the soil, helping plants to grow well and keeping pests away. The benefits of natural water-based fertilisers are accelerating the growth of plants, preventing disease and protecting against salty dew and acid rain. It can also be used to soak seeds, which helps plants to grow well and prevents hereditary diseases.
He said his products are sold all over the country, but demand varies as they are designed primarily for use with fruit crops rather than rice.
Sophat explained that chemical fertilisers and natural fertilisers are different in quality. A farmer generally needs three times as much natural fertiliser as the chemical equivalent to achieve the same results. The benefits are far different however, because when products are used, the farmer can sell their produce for a higher price.
He added that the use of all natural fertilisers improves the soil and does not affect the health of consumers.