While charcoal products are commonly produced from the logging of natural forests, Cambodians continue to have a significant demand for it. However, one local enterprise in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district has veered off the beaten path.

By processing coconut shells, they create an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional charcoal.

This remarkable eco-conscious social enterprise has not only introduced a greener alternative but also crafted valuable job opportunities for over 40 local scavengers.

Impressively, this initiative includes individuals in recovery from drug addiction, lending them a supportive hand towards transformation.

The premises of Khmer Green Charcoal (KGC), located in Stung Meanchey commune’s Russey village, may not epitomise luxury, with rows of old sacks stacked high. However, among the workforce, one of the former drug addicts described the place as one offering emotional solace.

KGC has proudly emerged as a beacon, taking the lead in creating charcoal from coconut shells, a new initiative in the region.

Chom Vichet, the enterprising owner of Khmer Green Charcoal, had an intriguing journey before founding KGC in 2012.

He had collaborated with Italian experts on a waste recycling project, which stemmed from his concern about the vast amounts of waste piling up in Cambodia. He noticed that a significant portion of the discarded materials could be put to good use.

Vichet has always been passionate about the importance of recycling waste into practical items. He understands that this approach is not just practical but also pivotal in preserving the environment. Hence, he took a giant leap in 2012 and began producing charcoal from coconut shells, stepping away from the traditional approach that leads to deforestation.

He saw the potential danger to Cambodia’s forests if people continued to use charcoal made from them. This form of charcoal, sourced from natural forests, has been deeply ingrained in the traditions of Cambodians. However, he feared the repercussions if this were to continue — the depletion of natural forests to the point where they could no longer meet daily needs.

“Relevant state institutions are encouraging me to continue producing more and spreading information to educate consumers. They want me to help people change their traditional mindset from using natural forest-dependent charcoal to using charcoal made from coconut shells instead,” said Vichet.

He continued: “It is profitable and contributes to preventing illegal deforestation, which in turn helps our environment. We are proud to have the opportunity to assist”.

It is a testament to the difference one person can make when armed with a vision and determination, proving that industry and environmental stewardship can indeed go hand in hand.

Vichet sources his raw materials, primarily coconut shells, from both Phnom Penh and surrounding provinces. Suppliers either deliver the shells directly to his location or request his team to collect them.

His enterprise has received commendation for the quality of its charcoal, with eco-friendly certification following tests in Germany. Local institutions also back his efforts, encouraging the continuity of production.

His clientele largely resides in Phnom Penh, with two types of charcoal on offer. Type 1 is made purely from coconut shells, and type 2, a blend of wood waste, crushed charcoal, and sugarcane bagasse.

The Type 1 charcoal, praised for its extended burning time of five to six hours, significantly outperforms wood charcoal by four to five times. The blended Type 2 charcoal also puts in a respectable performance, with a burn time of around three hours. In terms of production, Vichet’s enterprise boasts a capacity of 90 to 120 tonnes of charcoal per month.

His charcoal products have gained visibility and recognition through exhibitions at various events, notably at the US and French embassies in Phnom Penh. Several organisations have also played a pivotal role in promoting his charcoal products.

The workforce at the charcoal factory is made up of over 40 people, selected from scavengers and former drug addicts. Vichet takes an active role in educating employees on the perils of drug use, aiding them until they can overcome their habits and contribute to the enterprise.

He has also formed a partnership with the NGO Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), providing educational opportunities for around 120 children. These include those whose parents work for the enterprise, as well as other children from the community.

Praising his product, Vichet said the charcoal is non-explosive, produces no sparks or smoke, and doesn’t leave black stains on walls. He sells on average 80 to 100 tonnes per month, but demand can drive production over 120 tonnes.

Makro Supermarket, various hotels, restaurants, and barbecue shops in Phnom Penh show the highest demand for this product. Furthermore, exports to Taiwan, Japan, and Germany cater to both barbecuing and domestic use.

The price for his coconut shell charcoal is 4,000 riel ($1) per kilogram, or $1,000 per tonne, for both local and overseas sales. The Type 2 charcoal is 1,600 riel per kilogram for purchases of 300 kg or more, inclusive of delivery.

Direct purchases from the location are discounted to 1,500 riel per kilogram. Purchases under 300 kg are priced at 1,900 riel per kilogram, with delivery arranged by the enterprise.

“I want charcoal users to transition towards environmentally friendly charcoal instead of forest-dependent charcoal. This switch would bring benefits like deforestation prevention and wildlife habitat conservation, contributing to a healthier environment,” said Vichet.

He underscored: “By supporting my initiative, we also aid scavengers and those struggling with drug addiction who form the cornerstone of our team”.

Among his workforce is Dok Khak, a 29-year-old employee from Russey village. Raised in a humble background, he lived with his parents and did not continue his education beyond high school. At 20, he fell into drug use and addiction under the influence of friends.

During his battle with drug addiction, Khak sought work at several companies and factories, hoping to fund his growing habit. However, potential employers refused him, further intensifying his addiction. Despite his dire need for money, he refrained from asking his mother, a cook earning less than one million riel.

He shared: “During that time, I struggled to find a job due to my intense addiction to drugs. My work was erratic, mainly selling fried rice offered by relatives. Only those familiar with my situation gave me a place to stay, but they eventually asked me to leave”.

One day, finding himself without options or a place to stay, he decided to return to his parents’ home in Russey village. Around the same time, he happened to meet a security guard working at the coconut shell charcoal factory. The guard then introduced him to the enterprise.

Despite his addiction,Vichet, the enterprise owner, took him in. He encouraged him to read books and educated him relentlessly about the damaging effects of drug use. He has now been employed at the charcoal factory for eight years, completely free from his addiction.

“I am grateful to my boss. He may not have been able to instantly get me to quit drugs, but he constantly provided guidance and mental support to help me do so. No other company owner would offer me a job, let alone provide guidance and motivation to quit drugs like he did,” said Khak.