Keo's wife Hen Chan Thoeun fills a reseller's basket with fresh fish.
ON a trip to rural Prey Veng province to visit fish farmer Keo La, 41, who is starting to prosper thanks to a little help in the right direction from USAID’s MSME project, one immediately notices his new house flanked by a garden full of vegetables and surrounded by several fish ponds.
The $21 million, Cambodia Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise (MSME) Project is implemented by DAI, a US based international Development organization.
It is headed by Curtis Hundley, an American working on Private Sector Development in Cambodia since 1999. The project focuses on helping rural business people better serve markets, increase profits by overcoming technical constraints and improving business-to-business and business to government relationships.
“We want to shift rural Cambodians away from a culture of dependency to a culture of entrepreneurship,” said Sun Boreth, the Cambodian-American Concurrent Deputy Chief of Party of the project. The project employs 50 Cambodians working in three provincial offices.
One innovative initiative of the Cambodia MSME project was to wisely invest US government funds in the water sector by co-investing with 27 private Water Service Providers and helping expand and improve their water systems. This initiative has resulted in more than 135,000 rural Cambodians having access to safe drinking water.
One MSME-supported water company is located in Peam Po, just across the Mekong River from Neak Loeung ferry, and serves more than 400 households from a water tower that was originally funded by the World Bank. Now the local water company sells the water to customers for 500 Riels per cubic meter. The MSME project provided funding so poor households could have a tap in their home.
Customers seem to be appreciative of the supply of clean water in an area that experiences annual flooding with houses built on stilts.
The MSME project operates in also supports honey production, sanitation, and swine farming in 17 provinces of Cambodia and supports people in eight different food and manufacturing supply chains to reduce costs, increase quality and make more profits. The Prey Veng province case of fish farmer of Keo La illustrates the kind of assistance USAID’s MSME project provides.
Originally from Phnom Penh, Keo married Hen Chan Thoeun whose family is from Domreypuon Commune area of Prey Veng. She tried living with Keo in Phnom Penh for a while, but didn’t like it.
When the couple moved back to Domreypuon, they started raising black ducks on a small plot of land, but discovered there wasn’t much of a market for the ducks.
In 2006, Keo sold all the black ducks, took the money and bought 1,000 fingerlings of the pangasus fish species. Several months later, he was delighted to harvest a few tons of fish.
Late in 2007, Keo met the USAID MSME team who invited him to join a training session in a nearby village – but what really switched him on was an “exposure” trip to Vietnam he joined, funded by MSME.
“When I came back here, I changed my fish species, raised tilapia and dug my own pond, by hand in 30 days,” Keo said.
“He’s a hard working man,” said his wife.
“It was amazing in Vietnam,” he said, returning to Cambodia full of ideas.
“One of those ideas was how well the government and private sector work closely together to improve the business for everyone,” he added.
Now Keo and other local fisheries people maintain good relations with the commune chief who encourages them sell their fish locally and to traders from Prey Veng town. “This good support from the government encourages investment in the fish business and helps our community grow.”
The MSME team connected Keo with other fingerling producers in other districts.
The most important species now is tilapia, with Keo producing between 60 and 80 kilos per day.
According to Keo, tilapia take four or five months to raise.
“You take out the big ones every day after four months,” he said.
Keo introduced the hardy, fast-growing and tasty tilapia species into the area and after initial hesitation – word spread that good fresh fish were available every day from Keo and his wife’s fish ponds. “The whole community didn’t want to eat tilapia – but then they tried it and they liked it. Word of mouth spread the news of the best fish in town and the people created the demand,” Keo said.
Another species Keo raises is silver carp which he says are easy to sell but harder to raise. The fish are fed rice bran, plenty of which is available at the local market, a by-product of rice milling. The bran is cooked in a big pot over a fire into a kind of thick porridge, which is shaped into balls and lowered on a basket into the pond. The fish come and nibble on the cooked bran.
He pays 800 riel per kilo for rice bran at the local market
In economic terms, $100 worth of rice bran turns into $200 worth of fish.
“You can also make money selling the fingerlings to other fish farmers,” he said.
Keo and his wife are enjoying a period of happiness now and proud of the new house they have build with the proceeds from fish farming.
Market ladies arrive several times a day by motorcycle with big baskets on the back to buy the fresh fish from Keo and sell them at the market.