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Bread diplomacy, rice diplomacy

Jean-Claude Poimboeuf - Cambodge - 24 October 2014

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By a happy coincidence, top quality French bread is making its grand entrance on the Cambodian market just as Cambodian rice goes on display at the SIAL food fair in Paris. And only a week after the annual food festival La semaine du gout!

We know that French gastronomy is well represented abroad, thanks to the many restaurants owned by French or French-trained chefs, the patisseries and of course, our wine and spirit exports. I noticed it as soon as I arrived in Phnom Penh, where there are countless French restaurants of all kinds, from the simplest to the most luxurious, and where a wide range of French food products are available in the supermarkets.

Nevertheless, I was not expecting to be reunited with my Parisian baker in the Cambodian capital. I owe this to Maison Kayser, which has just opened not one but two bakeries: one in a brand new Japanese shopping centre, AEON Mall, and the other on a main shopping street near the Royal Palace. With Éric Kayser as its official supplier, the embassy now not only serves quality bread to its guests but also helps to promote a daring and successful French entrepreneur, who opened his first bakery in Paris in 1996 and now owns over 100 shops in 20 countries in 2014.

“Half the world eats rice, the other half eats bread.”
Éric Kayser

During a lunch at the ambassador’s residence to introduce him to potential customers, Éric Kayser told me that he had first visited Cambodia seven years ago and immediately wanted to establish a branch there. It is true that the French protectorate left the Cambodians with a healthy appetite for bread, which is sold pretty much everywhere in the form of baguettes. In fact, the word for bread in Khmer is the same as in French: “pain”. Maison Kayser, which had already expanded to Asia (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore), could therefore establish itself in the favourable environment of Cambodia, a country with a real bread culture, before venturing into larger markets such as China, Vietnam or Thailand.

The task was no easy one: it was necessary to import flour, train teams and ensure the products were of consistently high quality. But the venture has been a great success, judging by the number of customers, of whom 90% are Cambodian. And the novelty of seeing a delivery tuk-tuk marked with the Kayser brand driving through the streets of Phnom Penh has yet to wear off!

Meanwhile, with the support of the French Agency for Development (AFD) and the French-Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, the Cambodian rice exporters’ federation is strongly represented at the SIAL food fair. As Cambodia’s exports grow (105,000 tonnes in 2010, 380,000 tonnes in 2013), this is an opportunity for the country to promote its jasmine rice, which won the world’s best rice award at the World Rice Conference in 2012 and 2013. And indeed, the Cambodian Minister of Trade himself, Mr Sun Chanthol, has decided to travel to Paris to support the food fair.

These two events both suggest that interesting changes are taking place. Kayser’s arrival in Phnom Penh is evidence of a notable trend, namely the rapid emergence of a middle class with new spending habits; this is confirmed by the brand new 40-storey tower housing other French brands such as L’Occitane en Provence, Petit Bateau, Clarins, Christofle and Longchamp. Meanwhile, Cambodia has shown that, although it cannot compete with the largest rice exporters, it has become a stakeholder to be reckoned with, especially in terms of quality. France, as the primary consumer of Cambodian rice, is also contributing to this promising development.

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