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A Growing Business

Akiko Goto

Japan's agricultural products have a reputation for both high quality and high prices. But the domestic market is shrinking as the population declines and international competition increases.

The food industry is looking for other places to do business, a search has led one firm to Cambodia, where Phnom Penh has the country's biggest market.

Shoppers at the large store have many options, including vegetables grown in Cambodia by a Japanese company. Everything is produced without agricultural chemicals and comes neatly wrapped.

The company behind the products is bringing Japanese knowhow to Cambodia's farmlands. CEO Kenji Ono says "Japanese products have a good reputation for quality in Cambodia. I believe sales will increase."

Tetsushi Ako started the business three years ago. Cambodia imports more than half its vegetables. As the economy has developed, consumers have become more attentive to food safety. "Many people want the kind of safety and quality that Japanese produce is known for," Ako says.

Ako set out to adapt Japanese techniques to the Cambodian climate, explaining "the weather and land are different. Not everything that fits Japan is appropriate here."

Workers gathered data on soil and other factors. It took a year to grow vegetables suitable for sale. Farmers also needed guidance on doing without chemicals. Ako often visits them to provide pointers.

Nowadays, about 40 farmers are contracted by his firm ship chemical-free vegetables. His company also brought innovation to shipping and delivery. It set up a depot for washing and wrapping. Ice-packs in containers keep the produce cool. Vegetables harvested in the morning are delivered the same day. That freshness has convinced shoppers to pay double the usual prices.

Ako is already thinking about the next step. A new bridge over the Mekong River is part of a highway connecting Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Cambodia lies at the center of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and has a population of 600 million.

Ako plans to export vegetables from Cambodia to neighboring countries. "ASEAN is expected to expand as a market. I see Cambodia as its gateway and the last frontier," he says. And eventually, some of what's grown there may even be put on sale in Japan, taking the process full circle.

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