Marketing of unique local food culture benefit of poor people: Moo Chamuang

“Moo Chamuang” is a local dish made of a spicy pork curry blended with spices and G. cowa leaves. Cowa trees and local food culture are interlinked and unique to the Khong Narai community where Moo Chamuang is a preferred dish for the villagers to consume at home. Moo Chaumang provides year-round eatables of good quality, free from the harmful effects of pesticides and chemicals. 

The context

Tropical fruits are deeply rooted in Thai food culture. Chanthaburi Province grows some of the best durians, rambutans and mangoesteens in the country. Our Participatory Rural Appraisal shows that the province also maintains a rich diversity of tropical fruit species (10 to 12 species per community) in orchards or home gardens. In Thailand, there has been a noticeable change from growing mangosteen (Garcinia mangostena) as a minor component in mixed fruit cultivation within small acreages to profit-oriented commercial-scale monocrop orchards. Garcina cowa Roxb., another member of the Garcinia family, known in Thailand as Cha-muang, is often grown as a minor component in mixed crop plantings in most parts of Southeast Asia as it has a long juvenile period and slow growth. Once wild, the tree is now commonly grown in home gardens and orchards by the farmers in Chanthaburi Province. It is one of the Garcinia species that regularly produces young leaves all year around. The leaves add a distinct, slightly sour taste to local curry, which makes the curry much tastier, according to villagers.

Strengthening social and human capital
The women’s self-help group based in Chanthaburi Province in Thailand is processing several products derived from a range of tropical fruits, one of which is G. cowa. This group was established in 1983 and was the first cooperative group in Khlong Narai District. The group was established after a major storm damaged the community’s durian and mangosteen trees and caused the fruit to drop while still unripe. The quality of this fruit was considered too low to be marketed as fresh products and therefore some of the female members in the community decided to process the dropped fruits in their homes for various value-added products. Women in the community have come together to use unmarketable fruits to produce enough of the value-added products to be able to market them, and they devote their leisure time to adding to the family income.

The district’s agriculture extension office assisted them in the establishment of the cooperative and provided capacity building on processing. This encouraged the group to process more frequently from their homes and to start including other species. After producing value-added products for thirteen years, the group managed to win a provincial award for the good governance and performance of their organization.

In 1996, the cooperative started producing several products, among which a local dish, for sale in local markets. Seven years later, the women’s group started producing the canned product of Moo Chamuang for sale in local and external markets. (insert the figure of cooperative with cans and vacuum packed products of Moo} They managed to obtain certification for the product from the Food and Drug Administration to guarantee food safety and to attract and strengthen consumer interest. The young cowa leaves needed for the dish are procured by the cooperative from its members, who harvest the fresh, young shoots from their home gardens or from the wild. When trees become too tall for the leaves to be easily harvested, they are either cut halfway or new seedlings are planted 

Contribution to maintenance of G. cowa to livelihood

G. cowa usually grows wild along the margins of the forests in various parts of Thailand. Using the G. cowa leaves in traditional food recipes such as Moo Chamuang had been in practice for a long time. Thus nowadays trees are commonly cultivated in almost every home garden for ease of access. The G. cowa trees, through Moo Chamuang and related recipes, help provide families with the daily requirements of essential food ingredients to provide nutritional security. In addition, the medicinal properties of the leaves, gum and bark of the tree are known for their contribution to maintaining the family’s good health, particularly for the elderly and women. In addition, the harvesting and processing of the G. cowa leaves provide households with additional income through the sale of fresh leaves to the cooperative and additional wages for the local staff who work in the production facility of the women’s group.

The concerted collective actions of the women’s group, plus government aid, have enabled them to build a cooperative-scale processing house and to purchase the equipment required to produce canned Moo Chamuang. These activities have increased the value of Garcinia cowa, resulting in on-farm conservation of this species and its diversity and increasing the richness of home gardens and orchards by adding another species to the list of their crops.

By starting this activity, women’s group members acquired specific skills in the processing and the production of canned products like Moo Chamuang. They gained insights into the institutional framework of a cooperative, their role as members and shareholders and the successful management of an enterprising cooperative. The activity enhanced their social and human capital and empowered the members to make self-directed decisions regarding their livelihood activities and the use of natural resources available to them. It strengthened their linkages and networks with other value chain actors like banks, traders, retailers, exporters and government departments. Profits made by the cooperative have enabled the women’s group to invest in better facilities, diversify products and purchase improved equipment for canning. The women’s group and its members have been able to earn regular income throughout the year with this activity, which provides them with cash in hand even outside the fruit harvest season. At present besides range of other products, women’s groups like the one in Khong Narai are able to sell around 12000 cans of Moo Chamuang per year, earning them about 420,000 Baht (US$ 14,000). By being added as a beneficial species to families’ home gardens and orchards, the population of G. cowa species will be maintained and secured for the future. The activities have contributed to a more resilient agro-ecological environment through the adoption of environmentally-friendly farm practices like avoiding chemical pesticides or fertilizers and using compost.

Canned Moo Chamuang has the great advantage of longer storage times. Prices and income from canned Moo Chamuang are more stable and distributed over the year compared with the sale of fresh fruits or leaves. This product has enabled community members to secure and spread their income over the year, avoiding sole dependency on sales during the glut season with typically low and volatile prices. In this way, households have been able to diversify their income portfolio, reducing the risk of income loss through dependency on a single income source.

In terms of contributions to livelihood strategies, this practice has created Moo Chaumang new benefits from traditional food recipes and dishes that were previously used only for home consumption. G. cowa is easy to manage, less prone to pests and diseases compared with other fruit trees and undemanding of inputs like fertilizer or labour time. This practice has promoted the use of existing natural resources for their multiple purposes and benefits and the subsequent conservation of the diversity maintained in multi-species orchards and home gardens. In the end, this helps to increase community resilience as locally well-adapted species in the face of external shocks and reduces the risk of natural hazards. 

Driving force for success

The major driving force for the successful establishment of this activity was the confidence of the women that the Moo Chamuang dish would sell and could provide direct financial gains to the members of the women’s group. Although the women had the knowledge of this particular tasty local recipe, the training that was given to them by government programmes like OTOP (One Tambon One Product) helped them to get organized. The training on food safety regulations and requirements, simple household-level canning technology and advice regarding the establishment of a cooperative helped the women’s group to set up a viable enterprise. Later on, financial support from the government, together with the successful accumulation of financial capital through profits, enabled the cooperative to invest in hardware and an improved production facility. The members stressed that another major success factor was the selection of a capable, trustworthy and inspiring manager of the cooperative who came up with several product ideas, such as launching of Moo Chamuang.

A way forward

On-farm conservation of local biodiversity is embedded in local cuisine and food culture. The continuance of traditional food systems is one of the strategies for the management of agricultural biodiversity. The conservation and maintenance of G. cowa trees in every home garden and orchard can contribute to nutritional and financial security through concerted collective actions. The practice described here is very practical, cost-effective and sustainable. The biggest challenge now is related to quality maintenance and marketing, which can be resolved as the self-help group now has the confidence to undertake them. The cooperative plans to increase their sales by exploring new market channels, such as exporting products to other countries, in the near future.

This short story gives good insights into the value of agricultural biodiversity, how local food cultures support the conservation of unique species, how Garcinia cowa is maintained and used successfully in the field, and how it contributes to the livelihoods and well-being of many rural households. This participatory research project (see note below) encouraged the community and local institutions to identify rare and unique elite material from existing diversity and to adopt the traditional knowledge system as “a good practice of diversity management” that is further promoted for scaling up of good practices in sustainable management. 

(Compiled by Samreang Changprasert, Sombat Tongtao, Chatchanok Noppornphan, Songpol Somsri, Bhuwon Sthapit, V. Ramanatha Rao, Maninder Kaur and Hugo Lamers)

This flyer is an output of the UNEP/GEF Tropical Fruit Tree Project, “Conservation and Sustainable Use of Cultivated and Wild Tropical Fruit Diversity: Promoting Sustainable Livelihoods, Food Security and Ecosystem Services” implemented in 36 rural communities in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The project is coordinated by the Bioversity International with financing from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), and implementation support from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

Photo credits: Bhuwon Sthapit and Hugo Lamers 
Edited by: Judith Thompson and Arwen Bailey 
Designed by: Ambika Thapa, Bioversity International