Cooking is one of the most basic human needs. Despite current trends of using gas or electric ovens, many of the Kingdom’s residents still rely on charcoal as their primary cooking fuel, guaranteeing a solid market.

Due to this ongoing demand, a former Bachelor of Architecture student made the decision to abandon his previous career path and pursue one in the field of charcoal production – but with a twist.

Ly Sovanda uses eucalyptus trees to produce his charcoal. He is currently selling his product in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, but has plans to expand into international markets.

“I use eucalyptus trees to produce charcoal as a way to reduce our dependency on natural forests. I want cooks to switch to using this kind of charcoal so that we can preserve our forest environment,” said the 29-year-old, who lives in Kraing Rolous village, O commune, Kampong Speu province’s Phnom Sruoch district.

He told The Post that despite having a bachelor’s degree in architecture, he saw a market for what he describes as “organic charcoal”, and decided to pursue it.

He added that he produces organic charcoal because he wants to replace the use of forest charcoal. Most charcoal producers typically use wild timber to produce their product, whereas is he only employs eucalyptus trees that grow in local villages

“Eucalyptus trees are commonly planted, but do not grow naturally in the forests of Cambodia. When there is a high demand for charcoal, people sometimes resort to felling trees from the forest to produce it. If more people learn about eucalyptus charcoal and use it instead, the demand for forest charcoal will decrease, resulting in a reduction of deforestation,” he said.

“This is a very good way to express my commitment to the preservation of natural forests,” he added.

He explained that no specific size of eucalyptus is required for charcoal production. Trees with diameter of as small as 10cm can be used for the process.

The trees are first cut into pieces and ground into fine particles resembling sawdust. The particles are then dried in a machine to reduce their moisture content, before being pressed into firewood sizes measuring between 40 cm to half a meter. The compressed bricks are then burned in an iron furnace to produce charcoal. Raw materials for this process are sourced from nearby villages at a cost of between 60,000 to 70,000 riel per cubic meter.

He noted that his organic charcoal has a higher combustion temperature than other charcoal types. According to his experiments, the temperature of his charcoal can reach 800 degrees Celsius. Unlike regular charcoal, his produces less ash, and burns with far less smoke. Most buyers purchase it for barbecuing purposes.

According to Sovanda, his charcoal does not require overly complicated production techniques. However, in order to produce a product that is easy to ignite, smoke-free, and extremely hot burning, the manufacturer needs to possess specialised technical skills. The nature of his product means that less of it is required to achieve the same results as would be gained from the use of regular charcoal.

“Just half a kg is equivalent to a full kg of ordinary charcoal,” he said.

“It is important to know the moisture content of the ‘sawdust’ in order to determine what is suitable for the production of high-quality organic charcoal. Regarding the technical skills required for charcoal production, I learned from Chinese experts, and also conducted my own research,” he added.

He told The Post that his operation can produce approximately half a tonne to one tonne of organic charcoal per day, which is sufficient to meet the demands in markets in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. The current sale price for a box of 10kg is $6.5, meaning that the price is approximately 2,600 riel per kg, as opposed to the 1,500 riel price of forest charcoal.

He believed that this was offset by the improvement in quality, and that he plans to begin exporting his product to Japan and South Korea in the near future.

Sovanda said that his business receives support from the Kampong Speu provincial Department of Industry, Science, and Innovation. In addition, he has been encouraged to participate in various exhibitions not only in the province itself but across Cambodia.

“I cannot insist that everyone use my organic charcoal exclusively, but I would like people to think about the source of whatever charcoal they use, and whether they might be inadvertently contributing to deforestation. Together, we can help preserve the environment by utilising sustainably sourced charcoal instead,” he said.

Taing Kim Cheng, the chief of O commune in Phnom Sruoch district, told The Post that using eucalyptus trees to produce organic charcoal is a good choice because it does not involve cutting down trees in the forest.

“There is a 30-hectare plantation of eucalyptus trees in the commune, although I am unsure whether it is the source of Sovanda’s raw materials,” she said.

“On behalf of the local authorities, I would like to encourage him to keep doing what he is doing, as it contributes to preserving our natural resources. Interestingly, I have noticed that some individuals who often went into the forest to cut down trees to produce charcoal are now using tamarind trees instead,” she added.

Srun Makara, an official from the provincial innovation department, told The Post that the department supported Sovanda’s operations.

“Several officials and I have visited his site, and noted that he is using eucalyptus trees exclusively. This had no detrimental effects on the environment and is completely legal, so we urge him to keep it up,” he said.