Cultivating spirulina in Cambodia
May 17, 2016
he Phnom Penh Post ran story about a New Zealand couple who, after plans for a dairy business went sour, invested in Cambodia’s mostly untapped spirulina market, setting up Global Superfoods, which produces spirulina powder and pills for the increasingly health-conscious local and international markets. The Post’s Ayanna Runcie met with Grant Catley, co-founder of Global Superfoods, at his spirulina farm in Kandal province to discuss the company’s production and growth plans.
Why did you choose to set up spirulina production here?
We came to Cambodia to start a dairy farm, but to be honest, that didn’t work out. We had invested in a company producing fresh Soya milk that also grew spirulina on the side, and when the dairy didn’t work, I got quite interested in it.
I realized they weren’t doing it very well at the time, so I tried to implement a few changes, but they weren’t very keen on that, so my wife and I decided to do it ourselves properly. We had assistance from a French NGO who also supplied us with the culture. We had a Khmer partner who had this land. We came out and looked at it and it was ideal for what we wanted to do, and with plenty of room for expansion.
How do you grow spirulina?
We get a little bit of spirulina and put it in a 20-liter bucket. It grows, gets quite dense and becomes 200 liters, and then we can transfer that into a big tank.
We have three tanks and will add eight more in the next two months. At the moment, we have 240 square meters of production, and by the middle of next year we will have 2,200 square meters.
And spirulina grows very quickly, especially in these temperatures. Cambodia has almost ideal conditions to grow spirulina. The rainfall is quite low – an average of 1,200 milliliters, which is not a lot – and the temperature is generally in the 33 to 37 Celsius range, which is optimum growing temperature for spirulina.
In Myanmar, where they grow it, they can only grow it for about three months, and in northern Thailand it has about a four-month growing period because below 20 Celsius is too cold.
What processing does it require?
We stir the spirulina during the daytime, but at night we don’t need to stir. The tank depth is 15 centimeters, but it only grows in the first two centimeters, and that’s why we need to agitate it, to circulate it so that it goes from the bottom to the top.
We add some minerals that control the high pH of 10.4, which is quite optimum. We also put in some other minerals, like potassium and calcium. Basically, we feed the spirulina what our bodies need. Spirulina is the highest form of protein that you can get per volume – it’s 60 to 65 per cent pill weight volume – and it has over a hundred essential minerals that the body needs.
We could harvest every day, but we do it every second day because the alternate days we make pills. We do everything from start to finish, because it gives us control and allows us to guarantee the quality of the product.
How do returns on spirulina compare to those of other agri-cultural crops?
There aren’t many crops in the world that you can harvest every day. Rice you have to plant and wait for it to grow and if you have a problem in between, you might not get much rice. If you put it down to a dollar value per hectare it’s very high. I used to make a lot of dollar value off of my cows producing milk, but I had 170 hectares, while here I can produce the same amount money-wise in two hectares, so in that respect it’s a very good return.