Battambang-based fruit drying and bottling business Navita Healthy Food and Beverages Co Ltd (Navita Food Production) plans to buy 60 tonnes monthly of locally-grown longan – a fruit of the soapberry family, which includes lychees and rambutan – to do its part to save the fruit’s troubled market, founder Uy Chengheng told The Post.

China on August 13 imposed a ban on Thai longan over concerns of mealybug contamination, leading to worries about domestic oversupply in Thailand and prompting the country to halt purchases of the fruit from Cambodia. Although China repealed the ban just four days later, economic repercussions could weigh heavy on Cambodian longan growers and exporters to Thailand.

And to further twist the knife in, Cambodia has entered the harvest season, which according to Pailin Longan Association, typically occurs from August to end-December, peaking in November.

In response, Prime Minister Hun Sen on August 18 launched a government purchasing initiative, as part of a broader campaign to buy longan from farmers in the seven provinces bordering Thailand – Koh Kong, Pursat, Battambang, Pailin, Banteay Meanchey, Oddar Meanchey and Preah Vihear.

Established just a few months ago in November in the southwestern corridor of Battambang town, Navita is still finding its footing, tweaking and experimenting with different products, exploring new business models and ideas, and even looking to expand into exports.

Now Navita has set its sights firmly on longan, and founder Chengheng says the small-scale enterprise aims to buy two tonnes each day, spending 2,500 riel ($0.61) per kg plus transport costs. This is on the higher end of the 1,800-2,500 riel price range reported by provincial governor Nguon Rattanak in mid-August.

Although the offer has been on the table since August 26, farmers – exclusively smallholders – have only been able to bring a cumulative 1,000-1,500kg to the business each day, a tad bit shy of the 2,000kg per day goal, Chengheng lamented.

“We’re just a small enterprise that cannot afford to sign contracts with owners of large plantations, and they don’t sell to us, either, they hang back until someone buys the entire crop of longan from the plantation in one go. Only smallholder farmers are selling to us at the moment,” he said.

In addition to longan, dried or bottled in syrup, Navita also offers dehydrated fruits such as pineapples, mangoes, dragonfruits and tomatoes – all sourced from Battambang, he said, adding that he is also looking into the resources needed to start packaging longan into aluminium cans.

He said dried dragonfruit, and dehydrated and bottled longan were particularly well-received, but noted that orders for the white-fleshed soapberry outstrip production.

Navita began trialling bottled longan in syrup at the onset of the harvest season early in August, which was met with positive reception for its taste and quality, inspiring the business to ramp up production, he said.

“Initially, we produced bottled longan in small quantities to test the market demand, but the product garnered so much support that we are unable to recruit the staff needed to keep pace.

“My business produces healthy foods, processing fresh fruit into natural dried fruits without added sugar, aromas, or colourings – except for bottled longan, which contains 15 per cent of added sugar,” Chengheng said.

Provincial Department of Commerce director Kim Hout commended Navita for helping buy longan from farmers in this difficult situation, in tandem with the government purchasing initiative.

Hout stressed that the government would not make a profit from the initiative. “We’re not buying longan from farmers as a business, but merely to distribute for consumption. Farmers will be absolutely thrilled. However, our goal is to buy solely from smallholder growers, and especially not from traders,” he said.

Chengheng believes Navita’s commitment to health will better position its products to compete with imports.

He noted that Navita products are currently distributed in a number of markets, and that there are plans to sell them in supermarkets later this year. Even exports seem to be on the cards.

“We have been in contact with a number of overseas markets, with prototypes being exported to Britain, France, Italy, Australia and Germany – hoping for positive results.

“Our vision is to become an enterprise embedded in the mindset of consumers – when one thinks of healthy food that does not jeopardise their nutrition, they must think of Navita,” he said.

A packet of dried dragonfruit or pineapples costs 9,000 riel, dried mangoes or tomatoes are 7,500 riel per pack, and longan in syrup go for 12,000 riel per jar.

Navita is located in Group 3, Sala Balat village, O’Mal commune (GPS Coordinates: 13.0784N, 103.17393E), according to Chengheng.