What happens when a new idea seizes you, a new answer to a question that you have been asking, a new way of seeing that makes you believe "This could be life-changing!"? For Mr. Phara’s family, this new idea came at a life-and-death moment.
When Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, people were not allowed to go to the market to buy groceries including sugar. Recalling those dark days in his interview with me, Mr. Phara shared, “Our grandmother was very ill and she told us: I need sugar. We have no sugar or sugarcanes in the village. But we have a lot of bananas, we are a village of bananas.” They were determined to give their grandmother a fighting chance at recovery with whatever they have in the village. So the idea of making banana sugar was born and over the next few days, they made it for her.
“We keep the ripe banana in a container. 1-2 days later, the juice of the banana will come out and then we boil it for 4-5 hours,” Mr. Phara explained. Sugar made in this way is more than just a substitute for those obtained from sugarcanes – it has it’s own flavour profile! The sweetness level is 80% of common sugar and it is slightly acidic so that it tastes like lemon tea when dissolved in water.
Many years later, banana sugar remains that breakthrough idea which represents for their family, through the generations, the call to seize the opportunities that comes with every day, to innovate with what they have and to persevere in the face of hardship. This is what the New Idea Enterprise stands for. Although their first banana sugar took days to make, it took much longer to turn this idea into an enterprise. “The sugar from the boiling process is a jam, not dry sugar. We needed technical support to dry it, to make it economical and be able to sell it in the market. But factories don’t have machine for banana sugar.” Mr Phara recounted how every mechanic he approached responded with incredulity when he asked them for a machine that could produce and dry the sugar from ripe bananas. So in 2010, his family took a 2-year journey to design their own production machine.
Even though it is easy to get sugar in the market now, making banana sugar and other marketable products from bananas continue to be important to give people in their village a fighting chance of living. When imported fruit from Thailand and Vietnam flooded the market in 2013, many local farmers found that they could hardly sell their banana at a price that would sustain their livelihood. With 10 hectares of banana plantation in their village, even making chips and dried banana snacks did not give the farmers sufficient income especially during the rainy season. Many of the ripe bananas go unharvested and spoil within 1 week. Mr. Phara added, “Now the water in the Mekong river is rising especially in the rainy season, with cyclone and rain every day. Banana plantations get flooded. We help farmers who can’t harvest all the bananas in time before the rainy season, so that they are not wasted.”
While banana sugar continues to be an innovative solution to support livelihoods in these challenging circumstances, the New Idea Enterprise is always coming up with more unique products that they can offer such as banana wine and candies. He even turned to me and asked, “What do you think? What more can we do?” Clearly, I was not the only one inspired by their resourceful and inquisitive approach. Many visitors even from outside of Cambodia have come to their self-made processing factory. Looking ahead, Mr. Phara hopes to build his knowledge of business development and apply for organic certification to continue expanding the market for the New Idea Enterprise – to continue seizing the day every day.