Cambodian “iron and steel” imports in the first nine months of 2022 clocked in at $271.778 million, expanding 20.1 per cent year-on-year from $226.377 million, Customs reported, as observers attributed the increase to brisk demand from a myriad of active locally-financed construction projects, coupled with limited domestic supply.

This category of items, corresponding to Chapter 72 of the harmonised tariff schedule, accounted for 1.144 per cent of the $23.764 billion value of the Kingdom’s total imports over the nine months, versus the 2.442 per cent, 1.635 per cent and 1.098 per cent ratios in the same periods of 2019, 2020 and 2021, respectively, General Department of Customs and Excise (GDCE) statistics show.

July-September iron and steel imports were down 15.4 per cent over the April-June quarter, but up 2.3 per cent compared to January-March.

In September alone, the Kingdom imported $27.025 millions worth, up 20.9 per cent from the $22.359 million recorded in the same month of 2021.

For comparison, the July and August figures were $29.495 million and $29.494 million, respectively, up 20.6 per cent and 18.8 per cent from $24.464 million and $24.835 million in the corresponding months of 2021.

The GDCE did not reveal any tonnage figures. To clarify, these imports do not include “articles of iron or steel”, which instead fall under Chapter 73 of the tariff schedule.

Despite the slight monthly downtrend this year, Housing Development Association of Cambodia secretary-general Huy Vanna drew attention to the fact that iron and steel imports have registered year-on-year increases throughout 2022, which he says have been undergirded by demand from the construction sector, notably for daily work on a whole host of locally-owned buildings.

By contrast, construction on large, typically internationally-owned developments has progressed at a sluggish pace on the whole, he said, citing general constraints pertaining to foreign financing fomented by the Covid-19 crisis and global political risks, which could potentially also be behind the monthly downtrend.

“The [on-year] increases in steel import values come as a result of vigorous residential construction activity, although the majority are older projects,” Vanna told The Post, stressing that the construction sector needs “more time” to return to pre-Covid-era growth.

The prospect of steelmaking in Cambodia to keep imports down and capitalise on the burgeoning domestic demand has piqued the interest of many investors, such as the Chinese-owned Hong De Sheng (Cambodia) Steel Co Ltd, whose $16.7 million steelworks in Kampong Speu province opened in early December 2020. In its initial stage, the factory was said to have an annual production capacity of 500,000 tonnes.

For reference, the Ministry of Commerce’s business registry indicates that Hong De Sheng Cambodia was incorporated on November 8, 2019, and lists “Chen Zhong” as the company’s “chairman” – a tag it typically reserves for a business’ highest-ranking officer – with a postal registered office address in Fuzhou city, Fujian province, China.

Meanwhile, Cambodia Constructors Association general manager and secretary Chiv Sivpheng voiced disappointment in the number of projects approved by the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction year-to-date as well as their aggregate investment commitment.

The construction ministry reported that it greenlit 2,811 construction projects in January-August 2022 with total registered investment of $1.662 billion – down by 90 developments and 56.7 per cent in terms of value over the same time last year.

Of these, 2,521 or 89.7 per cent were residential projects, down from 2,530 in the same eight-month period last year.

Sivpheng maintained that these numbers would remain depressed unless global political and economic uncertainty recedes to more moderate levels.

“What we have now is mostly existing projects, and there are only local investors. More time is needed for high-rises, which require large amounts of investment capital,” he said.