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Producing locally, thinking regionally

With close to 20 years’ experience in Cambodia’s agricultural sector, the United Nation’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has been working on a variety of projects that are aimed at improving the productive capacity of farmers in the Kingdom’s rural areas. Benoit Thierry, IFAD’s Cambodia country program manager, sat down with the Post’s Thik Kaliyann and Nicky Sullivan last week to discuss the organisation’s project progress and the challenges that lay ahead.

Benoit Thierry, IFAD’s Cambodia country program manager
Benoit Thierry, IFAD’s Cambodia country program manager, talks to the Post in Siem Reap last week. Thik Kaliyann

How have IFAD’s current activities been progressing in Cambodia?
In Cambodia now, the portfolio now is about $100 million, working in 10 provinces. I think, through the decades, there are many thousands of families who have benefited from these programs. I don’t know exactly the number.

What is clear is that we are slowly moving now, through the value chain and markets, so the farmers can really send their products to the cities and small industries, so they can get more money.

What are some of the main challenges facing farmers in Cambodia today?
A few years ago, there was the post-war reconstruction. That period now is completely over, and now we have a new generation in Cambodia.

The main problem is productivity. Here, you have people, land, water, but the productivity of agriculture is still low. So you have to train the farmers to lead them to the market so they can really increase their production.

That suggests the value chain – infrastructure, transport, traders and if you need to buy seeds that are of good quality – everything could be much easier.

Increasing productivity is the main issue, to establish these small centres of activity everywhere. There is very good potential here to improve agriculture.

How are Cambodia’s agricultural issues different from other ASEAN countries?
Cambodia can benefit a lot from the experience of other countries, and ASEAN is very useful for that. With ASEAN you have 10 countries with diverse experiences so you can learn from each other.

You have Thailand and Vietnam with very different systems. You can pick which can best help you. Like Thailand has a very vibrant private sector, you have small industries and bigger ones.

You have the OTOP [One Village, One Product] system. But the nice thing is that in each village, there is a five-star system, depending on the quality of the products, and farmers are very much encouraged by that because they are proud to say that here is their four-star product. There are so many things we can share like this in a cluster.

How can the situation be improved?
The government has a very clear orientation, the ministry now wants to establish policies that support agriculture development. So it’s quite important going fast, I would say, because with the ASEAN economic community opening next year, you will now have a lot of competition from the other countries. So if you want Cambodia to emerge, that requires good policies, good strategies and good laws for implementation, and then everybody, from the private sector to the farmers, will follow. We need a good connection between government and farmers.

IFAD aims to help Cambodian farmers access the market. Why is access to the market so difficult?
The market is everywhere, so it should be easy. But the terms of the contract between the farmers and traders can be difficult. You need to look at what the terms of the contract are.

If it’s just, you take your product, you take it to the market to sell on the side of the street, you will remain poor. If now, you are in touch with someone who can buy 10 tonnes or 20 tonnes, and sign a contract with you for a certain price, then you can start planning and thinking about the future.

Have Cambodia’s links to regional markets improved?
I think the situation has changed a lot. Fifteen years ago, there were very few roads, now Cambodia has a lot. You can go to remote areas easily, where before, you had to take a flight, or it took three days to get there. Now the issue is, the connection to other countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Laos.

Has Cambodia done enough to diversify its agricultural exports?
You just have to now focus on the exports. Before, it was rubber, now the government pushes a lot more. But then you have many other products which you can do for Cambodia, with your tropical climate, anything can be produced that is vegetable, fruit, spices as well.

So I would say that first look at developing your market, first the local one, then the regional one, and then if you are able to make some good brands based on Cambodia and labelling, then you should sell internationally as well.

Look at what Thailand has done with Jasmine Rice. You have even better rice here in Cambodia than Jasmine, so you just have to make it known. With that, I’m sure many people can expand it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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