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Business Insider: Agro Ministry wants to keep it local

Kean Sophea, deputy director of the Department of Horticulture and Subsidiary Crops at the Ministry of Agriculture, speaks at his home last week.
Kean Sophea, deputy director of the Department of Horticulture and Subsidiary Crops at the Ministry of Agriculture, speaks at his home last week. Sreng Meng Srun

Business Insider: Agro Ministry wants to keep it local

In a move to support the growth of domestic farming, the government in June of 2016 launched its $20 million Boosting Food production programme. The Post’s Cheng Sokhorng sat down with Kean Sophea, deputy director of the Department of Horticulture and Subsidiary Crops at the Ministry of Agriculture, to discuss the programme and its challenges.

What does the programme focus on in the agriculture sector, and in which provinces do you operate?
The programme focuses on two main sectors. The first is production of fragrant paddy rice seeds and promotion of fragrant rice as a Cambodian export, and to that end we’re operating in 11 provinces including Takeo, Kampong Speu, Kampong Chhnang, Pursat, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampong Thom, Kampong Cham, Tbong Khmum, Prey Veng and Kandal. This sector of our programme will work with 260 agricultural cooperatives to produce 500,000 tonnes of fragrant rice a year for export.

The second sector focuses on safe vegetable production, in order to meet the high domestic market demand for vegetables. The plan is to supply 160 tonnes of vegetables to the local market daily, in order to reduce the amount of vegetables we import from abroad and to support local farmers. There are eight potential provinces we are considering for this vegetable production, including Pursat, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kompong Thom, Kompong Cham, Tbong Khmum, Prey Veng and Kandal. The programme focuses on 13 priority crops, including lettuce, chilli, bok choy, tomato, cucumber and zucchini. According to the programme plan, we intend to sign contracts with 2,060 participating farming families in total for this sector of production

What are the requirements for farmers to join the programme?
Most farmers are happy to join the programme. Every farmer who wants to participate in the vegetable-growing initiative must sign a contract to ensure the safe growing of their vegetables in accordance with programme requirements.

Farmers get a lot of benefits from joining the programme, including equipment, training, funding and access to markets. Farmers are required, in turn, to follow the requirements of the programme: they must keep a notebook for recording farm activity, must maintain records of purchases of seeds and fertilisers and must keep financial records to be analysed at the end of the programme.

We also provide farmers with 2,000 metres of water pipes, four packages of fertiliser and $488 to spend on buying equipment, seeds and fertiliser. We have spent $5.8 million so far on this project this year.

What are the results of the programme thus far?
At present, the second sector of the programme has not been producing as many tonnes of vegetables as expected. We have already begun working with 820 farming families. After providing technical training to these farmers and teaching Good Agricultural Practice to each, however, the resulting supply of vegetables to the local market has been only 50 tonnes a day for the month of September. This does not meet our expectations.

Can you outline some of the challenges you’ve been facing in achieving the goals of the programme?
Farmers have asked to increase the price of safe vegetables to be more costly than normal vegetables by 20 or 30 percent, which is a challenge.
We have also not yet formed cooperatives for participating farmers, so our production chain is not yet in order. We are trying to create a regular supply. There are still a lot of challenges, including cost of production, poor infrastructure, poor or nonexistent water irrigation and flooding.

What strategies have you been implementing to reach markets and ensure the success of the programme?
We are now creating a new strategy to reach the markets, and are focusing on selling our goods to retail markets rather than supplying them to wholesale markets. This strategy should reduce costs of transportation. We will also be promoting awareness of food safety and the impact of chemicals on vegetables through TV and radio broadcasts. We will keep reducing the price gap between locally grown safe vegetables and imported vegetables, and continue to control the quality of our product.

We also plan to meet with NGOs and members of the private sector who are working on the same types of projects, to share experiences and technical knowledge as well as market strategy. We believe our programme will be fruitful in the upcoming six months, though we will need more time to see all of the current obstacles to the market overcome.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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