It seems every month in Cambodia brings at least one new innovation or scheme intended to help tackle the country’s many problems, from disease and poverty to pollution and hunger. All have passionate backers certain they can make a difference. Some turn out to be hugely beneficial. Others, not so much. Here are a few of the quirkier projects currently under way that could improve the lot of hundreds, thousands or even millions of people – and a couple in the ‘not so much’ basket. Will Jackson reports.
Pink Phone Project
For some women, having a pink phone is more than a fashion statement. One Oxfam-backed project saw 30 female commune leaders in rural areas being given pink mobile phones and training on how to access weather forecasts, news, health tips and market prices, which they could then disseminate among their communities. The women were also given advice on how they could use the phones to mobilise community members, facilitate access to healthcare, bargain collectively and report safety and security issues. Stereotypically, the colour was chosen so the men would be less likely to use them. “The Pink Phone Project helps female leaders and their constituents gain better access to information that can empower them to make decisions regarding their livelihoods,” Oxfam Cambodia associate country director Sharon Thangadurai said. “The project has been a huge success so far and we are now looking to provide pink phones to over 100 more women across three provinces.”
Question: What looks like rice and tastes like rice and has the potential to help alleviate malnutrition across Cambodia and the rice-eating world? Answer: Ultra Rice. Actually grains of pasta disguised as rice and fortified with a micro-nutrient combination of iron, zinc, vitamins A and B1 (thiamin) and folic acid, Ultra Rice is mixed at a ratio of one grain to 100 of normal rice to massively boost the nutritional value of the Southeast Asia food staple in a way that doesn’t affect its appearance, texture or taste. Sneaky. US NGO Path, the UN World Food Programme and the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement recently completed a large scale year-long study distributing the fortified rice to 4,000 Cambodian school children. They’re now assessing the health impacts and whether the children were happy with the super-charged fake rice’s taste and appearance. “The intervention portion of the study is complete,” said Path spokesman Corwyn Ellison. “The project partners expect to finish analysing the data in 2014.” Mr Corwyn said that if it’s found the kids haven’t turned their noses up at this new take on the broccoli-covered-with-cheese ruse, it could soon be widely distributed across Cambodia and the world.
Solar-Powered Tuk- Tuks
Could Phnom Penh’s tuk-tuks soon be powered by the sun instead of petrol? It may seem like a fanciful idea, but a brave Australian company is forging ahead with plans to manufacture solar-powered tuk-tuks that will give local drivers a greener and more cost-effective alternative to petrol-fuelled vehicles. The company, Star 8, is planning to produce four different models of SolarTuk costing between $1,900 and $2,852. The vehicles will have a top speed of 50 km per hour and a range of up 120 km between charges. Star 8 commercial division manager Philip Stone said the company planned to have its factory open early in the new year and production of the SolarTuks under way in March. He said there had been interest from all over the world (including in constructing another factory in Sri Lanka) and pre-orders from Cambodia, Vietnam, the Caribbean and Nigeria. “We would like to think that we can make a difference to how people go about their daily existence and give people a better quality of life in parts of the world where having access to a reliable source of power will have a major impact,” he said.
Cambodia’s First Electric Car
The eco-friendly Angkor Electric Vehicle has been around – as a concept at least – for years now. A deal to put them into production was announced by Heng Development back in March 2011, but the closest the public has come to driving one has been with a hand-built display model revealed in January this year. At the time, inventor Nhean Phalloek said the battery-powered vehicle could travel 300 kilometres between charges and had a top speed of 60 kilometres per hour. Chan Heng, the general director of Heng Development, blamed delays on a business partner who dropped out of the project. However, this week she revealed she was in talks with a new partner and insisted the Angkor EV would be on sale early next year. Fingers crossed.
An Entire New City
US-based NGO People for Care and Learning doesn’t believe in half-measures. In 2012 the NGO revealed that instead of building new homes for victims of forced relocation, they were going to build a whole new city in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district; 1,500 homes for about 6,000 people, infrastructure, jobs and social services. The Build a City project is the brainchild of PCL director Fred Garmon who feared that previous rehousing efforts were “just creating another slum”. He said the only way to break the cycle of poverty was to completely rebuild the area from the foundations up. A year on, and the NGO has installed half of the new community’s sewage system and paved streets, lighting, a marketplace, a health clinic, a small police building and 70 homes. Programming and development director Jake Stum said $1.8 million had been donated or pledged and the biggest challenge was securing more land. He said the plan was still to house 6,000 people but the number of homes needed for them had been revised down. “We are still on track to complete the building of structures by April of 2015,” he said.
When good projects go bad
A Public Bus Service
In almost any other city in the world, a public bus network would be considered a standard feature. But despite congestion problems and a mostly poor populace, in Phnom Penh the idea is still far off, leaving residents to rely on motodops and tuk-tuks to get around. A month-long trial back in 2001 saw the Phnom Penh Municipality and Japan International Cooperation Agency put a fleet of more than 20 buses on the street, but a lack of patrons saw the project fall by the wayside. More than a decade later, and despite cynicism from some quarters, City Hall maintains that the buses will arrive eventually. Two companies last year won licences to run bus services in the city. City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche this week said a funding proposal was with the Ministry of Finance for consideration, but he did not know when the process would be completed.
During the 1990s, many NGOs attempted to address a shortage of potable drinking water in some areas of Cambodia by digging tube wells. These wells – as deep as 100 metres – tend to have fewer biological contaminants, such as parasites and bacteria, than shallow hand-dug wells, ponds and water courses and provide water even during the dry season. Unfortunately, many of the wells tapped into groundwater are contaminated with arsenic. It was first detected in 2000, but it took years for the full scale of the problem to become apparent. Government figures from 2010 indicated that up to 150,000 people living along the Tonle, Mekong and Bassac rivers were consuming water from wells laced with the chemical, which can cause skin and other cancers after prolonged exposure. Efforts since have focused on identifying and marking of contaminated wells and provision of alternative water supplies.
Solar-Powered Steam Pumps
Lack of effective irrigation is a big issue in Cambodia that limits the amount of rice that farms can produce each year. Green Earth Concepts hoped to alleviate the problem with an invention known as the Barrett Steam Pump, a solar steam-powered water pump that could irrigate rice paddies in a low-cost and eco-friendly way. GEC proposed that farmers would pay for the technology over time by supplying harvested crops instead of money. The concept seemed to have potential and in 2010 won a $75,0000 grant from Singapore’s Lien Centre for Social Innovation through the i3 Lien Challenge Competition. But it never even got to the pilot stage. “We encountered technological issues with [the pump’s inventor Walt] Barrett to produce a pump sample,” said GEC founder Yvan Perrin. Mr Perrin added he was now seeking funding for an irrigation pump that used gas produced from rice husks.
The Cambodian government, with assistance from the Asian Development Bank, is in the midst of a $143 million project restoring the old railway line from Phnom Penh to Battambang and onto Thailand after completing a line to Sihanoukville. It’s hoped the train line will have big benefits, improving international trade and providing an alternative option for passenger transport. The project hasn’t failed: according to ABD the southern link is complete, and around 61.5km of the 383km northern line is ready. However, about 1,200 families living along the rail lines have been forced to relocate. The ADB says the families have been compensated. Human rights groups, however, claim that many of the families are still worse off than they were before. Eang Vuthy, director of Equitable Cambodia, said land provided was located too far from economic opportunities and the training offered generally unsuitable. Families had taken out loans to support themselves and been forced to sell off their land in order to pay them back. “We brought this issue to the attention of the ABD . . . We told them these people are poor, but if the compensation you are going to provide to them is [inadequate] they will be even poorer,” Vuthy said. ADB Cambodia country director Eric Sidgwick said relocated families were given land with improved amenities and security of tenure, livelihood training specific to the relocation areas and financial assistance. “Improving the expanded income restoration programme is a continuous process,” he said. “Additional training is being provided which better targets the current requirements of relocated households.”
With additional reporting by Hor Kimsay.