A local rum company is making a spirited effort to adapt to the business environment amid the COVID-19 pandemic: using their distillery to produce alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The company wants to provide the sought-after hygiene solution at an affordable price after many stores have increased the price of the product.
In normal times, the six-year-old company Samai Distillery produces rum for the local and international markets. Exports go to France, Spain, and Singapore.
But when the Coronavirus-pandemic hit the country and alcohol sales dropped abruptly in March, the company turned to hand sanitizer. Although they continue to also distill rum, their first 10-liter batch of hand sanitizer went on sale at the end of last month.
Co-founder Daniel Pacheco, 35, told VOA Khmer at his warehouse that his company had now started using some of the alcohol from the distilling process to also produce hand sanitizer.
“Seeing the situation of the virus in Cambodia and around the world, we saw that there is a lot of need for hand sanitizer,” he said. “So we saw the opportunity to contribute to the community in Cambodia that has helped us so much over the years and has been very supportive of us. We saw this as an opportunity to give back a little bit.”
The prices of masks and hand sanitizers in Cambodia have skyrocketed to more than double their initial price after the outbreak of the virus. Before the pandemic, a 500ml of hand-gel was sold for around $7, now it often goes for $14. A 30ml-bottle hand-gel for $2 is not uncommon.
And while Samai’s hand-sanitizer were at $3.50 for 120ml still more expensive than what a regular sanitizer would have cost before the crisis – a fact Pacheco attributed to the costs of bottles, labeling, and the manual filling of the containers – the company also offers refill-option of $1 per 100ml.
COVID-19 — the disease caused by the virus — originated in China’s Wuhan province late last year. Since its outbreak, it has killed at least 47,500 people and infected more than 940,000, according to John Hopkins University.
As of the beginning of April, Cambodia reported 110 cases in the country.
To help prevent and contain the virus, the World Health Organisation has repeatedly appealed to the public to regularly clean their hands, and not to touch their faces. It also advises people to stick to social and physical distancing.
Antoine Callet, 25, an operation manager at Samai Distillery , said that they produced three kinds of alcohol during the distilling process. The head – lighter alcohol mixed with acid – comes out first. The heart – pure ethanol that is used for making rum – comes second. And last come out the tails; a heavy alcohol hat is used in the next round of distillation.
“These heads are maybe between 80 [to] 85 percent alcohol. But they don’t taste good, so we don’t use it for rum,” he said.
While they usually used “the head” to clean their equipment, they now realized they could use them to produce hand sanitizer, Callet said.
Dozens of business in Phnom Penh have been suspended to constrain COVID-19’s spread. Samai Distillery itself temporarily closed their bar that normally opens to the public on Thursdays.
To produce sanitizer would also help them to keep their business running by paying for their staff to keep working at the distillery, his colleague Pacheco said.
“For us, it is a small project that we are starting. The idea here is not to make money: It’s actually to produce something at an affordable price. We see that a lot of people are increasing the prices as demand grows, and we think that that’s bad given the situation,” Pacheco told VOA.
Workers seem to have found enjoyment in the company’s added layer of spirits.
Phal Keammouy, 25, has worked for the company for four years now. “I am happy that [we produce hand sanitizer] because people need them now. All people like me or like yourself need alcohol sanitizer that kills the virus and that you could bring it along with you when you go out or before you eat,” she said.
Another staff member, Yorm Panha, 31, who has also worked for the company for more than four years, said that he was proud of the product in this time of chaos.
“I am proud that this company can produce gel as well as alcohol sanitizer for people in need… clean their hands to kill the virus. [We] also contribute to the government cutting down the risk of contracting the virus from person to person,” he said.
Seekers Spirits, a gin-distillery based in Phnom Penh, has taken similar steps to produce alcohol-based hand sanitizer.