With the aim of improving food quality and hygiene for the export market, the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) in Cambodia – in collaboration with the Kampong Thom provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries – has provided specialised training to the manufacturers of dried fish products in the province. The project has also constructed six solar drying houses.

Built on a flat area measuring 6m by 8m and surrounded by thick plastic sheets, one of the solar drying houses belongs to Kun Yin, a 53-year-old resident of Chambok village in Santuk district’s Taing Krasaing commune. One of the beneficiaries of the scheme, Yin’s solar drying shed produces dried, smoked, and fermented fish. He started his business in 2019.

The solar-powered facility was provided by the UNIDO project in order to improve the hygiene and quality of his products.

Yin told The Post that he is also engaged in traditional farming. Because his farm is located on one of the tributaries of the Tonle Sap Lake, he has an excellent relationship with several fishermen. He decided to buy fresh fish from them and turn them into value-added products to supplement his family’s income.

Initially, he processed the fish in the traditional way, drying them in the sun. This method made it impossible to avoid flies.

The provincial agriculture department offered him training in more modern methods of preserving fish. The department also recommended him for UNIDO’s solar drying dome project.

Yin said the new drying shed requires careful monitoring of temperature and humidity levels, as the final products can easily be over-dried, or even come out in different colours.

To make sure he mastered these very particular skills, he received additional specialised training from the department, via UNIDO. He now has an excellent working knowledge of temperatures and moisture levels, and knows how to maintain his solar drying house.

“UNIDO aims for us to adhere to international hygiene standards and implement standardised production, so we can meet the demands of the markets we want to enter. Adhering to high technical standards will increase the brand value of our products, and should increase our sales,” said Yin.

He explained that both the fisheries department and UNIDO conduct regular inspections of his drying house and issue certification that confirms he is adhering to good environmental hygiene practices.

“Using the drying house is very convenient and ensures there is no risk of the fish spoiling. Even in the rainy season, it produces excellent results. It has helped my business,” he added.

Thanks to the UNIDO drying house, his products are safer for consumers, and production is no longer tied to the weather or the seasons.

He told The Post more about the solar facility.

“It is a 6m by 6m greenhouse, and roughly 3m high, with solar panels to power it. From 7am to 11am, the indoor temperature is usually between 40 and 60 degrees Celsius, and can rise to 100C on a sunny day. Thanks to a solar-powered exhaust fan, I can modulate the temperature to suit the type of product I am drying. When it is time to turn the fish, I have to reduce the temperature before I can enter,” he said.

“The drying house is highly hygienic, with no dust or other contaminants. The panels are made from hard plastic, which is similar to the windows of a car. The manufacturers say it is durable enough for 20 or 30 years’ use. I have no concerns about it being damaged by heavy rain or storms,” he added.

Yin said that his products are generally sold to wholesalers in Kampong Thom province and distributed to markets in Phnom Penh. The dried fish he produces from farmed fish sell for about 27,000 riel ($6.50) per kilogramme, although he can get as much as 40,000 riel for river fish.

He explained that he generally uses fish species such as Ta Orn (Ompok bimaculatus), Kes (Micronema bleekeri), Riel (Henicorhynchus entmema) and Chpin (Hypsibarbus lagleri), but noted that demand for his goods is not as high as he would like, as many members of the public are unwilling to pay a premium for hygienic products.

“Due to a lack of high demand, I employ just six women. I am planning to expand in the near future and hire more people though,” he said.

Chin Sitha, director of the provincial Fisheries Administration (FiA) Kampong Thom provincial cantonment, told The Post that his department is responsible for inspecting the six UNIDO-built drying houses in the province.

“They are hygienic, and dust and insect-free. They also dry the fish very efficiently,” he said.

He explained that the owners also report to the FiA on a regular basis.

“The farmers are obliged to report production details to the FiA, including the amount of each species they process,” he said.

Pong Leang Oun, project coordinator with UNIDO’s CAPFISH-Capture, said the polycarbonate drying houses are an important part of the organisation’s work. UNIDO currently works in Kampong Thom, Siem Reap, Kampong Cham, Koh Kong, Preah Sihanouk and Prey Veng provinces.

He added that they not only install the solar dryers but also provide extensive training.

“We work with the private sector, particularly fish processors, to provide them with access to processing equipment and techniques, and to implement food safety standards. As a result, they have updated their technology and achieved compliance with food safety standards. This allows them to attain the Cambodia Quality Seal for products which benefits healthy consumers by ensuring that food safety standards are met,” he said.

“We already know that our country’s economy is growing and income is increasing, so more people are looking for food that is safe and hygienic. When we produce such food, they are willing to pay more than what farmers would earn from traditional methods,” he added.