Cambodian cassava exports are about to pick up steam and soar beyond the 293,653-tonne monthly average over January-November 2022, propelled by a growing pool of regional buyers and increasingly comprehensive and effective exploitation of free trade agreements (FTA), as well as a national policy on the South American-native root vegetable, according to Ministry of Commerce secretary of state Reach Ra on March 14.

The official – who doubles as deputy chairman of the permanent sub-working group under an inter-institutional working group tasked with monitoring and evaluating the implementation of the “National Policy on Cassava 2020-2025” – was speaking at a workshop on the instrument, held in Kratie province.

The government formally rolled out the national policy on January 14, 2021 seeking to turn the Kingdom into a bigger, more sustainable and reliable producer, processor and supplier – for both regional and global markets – of more commercially valuable products derived from the major cash crop.

Ra recapped that the commerce ministry – working closely with other government agencies, institutions and the private sector – led the negotiations that culminated in the signing of three key FTAs that he said will be a powerful driving force behind Cambodian cassava exports to the signatory markets as well as the associated sector’s attractiveness and marketability to investors.

These three trade pacts, all of which entered into force in 2022, are: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), along with the bilateral Cambodia-China Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) and Cambodia-Korea Free Trade Agreement (CKFTA).

He highlighted Thailand and Vietnam as major buyers of Cambodian cassava, which is generally exported in fresh, dried-chip, starch and pulp forms.

Early-2023 per-kg prices of cassava have also improved over last year, with going-rates of 300-500 riel (7.5-12.5 US cents) for fresh roots, and 800-900 riel for dried chips, Ra shared.

According to Minister of Commerce Pan Sorasak, cassava contributes an estimated three-to-four per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) each year. Using Statista’s $28.33-billion estimate of 2022 nominal GDP, this would amount to somewhere between $849.75 million and $1.134 billion last year, accounting for rounding.

Cassava is grown in almost every Cambodian province, in one crop a year. The woody shrubs are typically planted in May and harvested between November and the end of February the following year, although times can vary greatly by area.

One of these is Pailin province, on the border with Thailand, where the harvest lasts from September to April of the following year, according to provincial Department of Agriculture director Say Sophat.

He told The Post that the area under cassava cultivation in his province for the 2022-2023 season is about 44,000ha, up from more than 42,000ha a year earlier. Nearly 80,000 tonnes are expected to be harvested this season, he said.

Normally, about 70-80 per cent of the cassava grown in Pailin is exported by traders to Thailand, while 20-30 per cent is sold to domestic animal feed producers, he added.

“Cassava is essential for the people of Pailin, and is planted almost everywhere. Had there not been any floods at end-2022, the harvest could have been greater,” he lamented.

Speaking to The Post in mid-February, Battambang provincial Department of Agriculture director Chhim Vachira confirmed that the cassava harvest in his province – which borders Pailin – was almost complete, and that prices for the crop had risen year-on-year, with fresh and dried cassava respectively fetching an average of 350-380 riel and 700 riel per kg.

However, yields are shaping up to be less than during the previous season, he said.

Regardless, Vachira spoke highly of the cash crop, which he highlighted as a significant contributor to job creation and economic security for many farmers.

Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries data show that Cambodia exported 3.230 million tonnes of cassava and products thereof in January-November 2022, categorised as dried chips (1.817 million tonnes), fresh (1.332 million tonnes), starch (57,067 tonnes) and pulp (24,100 tonnes).

The ministry lists Thailand, Vietnam, China, the US, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Malaysia, India and Singapore as formal buyers of Cambodian cassava and products thereof – presumably in order of import value.

For comparison, Customs (GDCE) figures indicate that the Kingdom in 2022 exported $436.772 million worth of “edible vegetables and certain roots and tubers” – a category that includes cassava in fresh or dried form, and corresponds to Chapter 7 of the Harmonised System (HS) – marking a 66.86 per cent increase over $261.764 million in 2021 and a more than 18-fold jump over $23.971 million in 2019.