With more than 80 per cent of Cambodia’s population relying or engaging in some kind of farming activity, it’s clear that the Kingdom is an agricultural-dependent economy. But despite agriculture sustaining the livelihoods of the vast majority of the country, Cambodia still imports a large portion of its vegetables from neighbouring countries – Vietnam and Thailand – just to meet domestic demand. Chan Sophal, an independent agriculture economist sat down with the Post’s Chan Muyhong this week to discuss how local vegetable production can be improved.
What is the current situation for vegetable farming in Cambodia?
For the last 10 years, we have seen an increasing number of fruit plantations in Cambodia. We see more large scale plantations in Dragon fruit, Durian and Rambutan. But for vegetable crops, we have not seen a large scale yet. Most are small plantations practised by farmers in their communes. Vegetable is harder to grow compared to rice, which our people have practiced farming for centuries.
Growing vegetable requires more farming techniques, that is why there is low production and why we need to import a considerable amount of vegetable from neighbouring countries, especially from Vietnam. There has been funding from donors for almost 20 years to improve vegetable farming in Cambodia, but they have had little effect.
What makes Vietnam and Thailand able to produce such high quantities?
Because they are more technologically advanced, their farmers have lots of experience, knowledge and are supported by their government in growing vegetable crops on a large scale. We still lack irrigation systems and proper knowledge of the local market. We lack transport systems to distribute these products to many other areas of the country because of irregular production from farmers who lack that information and understanding of the market demand.
Vegetables are a nondurable crop and are easy to damage. When it comes to production of vegetables, take Vietnam for example, they use the high land with cold weather. This is much better for vegetables and increases crop yeilds. Cambodia does not have that. So we import about 200 tonnes of vegetables from Vietnam per day.
Does Cambodia have the potential to produce vegetable crops?
Cambodia has land in places like Mondulkiri, Ratanakkiri and Koh Kong with potential for growing vegetable crops. Currently, vegetable farming is largely done in Kandal, Battambang, Pursat, Siem Reap and Kampong Cham provinces. Research and development in the field of vegetables is progressing very slowly. Our farmers need to be equipped with knowledge and skills in vegetable farming.
For example, currently we rely on imported seeds. There are no research institutions who study how to grow vegetables here and to produce high yields like Thailand and Vietnam. Their government spends millions of dollars to improve the sector.
Why hasn’t the farming community responded to the demand for vegetable crops?
Rice farming is attractive because it does not need big capital. Any farmer, rich or poor can do it. But that is not the only reason. Vegetable growing is far more different and requires a new set of skills, compared to rice where you simply sow the seed and leave it there. Our farmers do not have this vegetable growing attitude as it requires so much attention and farming technique. The big issues are capital and skill. To start a commercial vegetable plantation, farmers need at least half a hectare to a hectare of land area and at least $5,000 to $10,000 to invest in irrigation systems, which reduce labour costs and ensure high yields. Only farmers with adequate capital will be able to run this kind of plantation. We need land that is not flooded, has good soil and is near a water resource. There are so many obstacles in the way that we expect this sector to slow even further than what we have seen.
What does the private sector and the government need to do?
More investment in vegetable production. Cambodia has a big opportunity in producing organic vegetable for export to the EU, too. However, investors have to take into consideration soil, water resources, market systems and have to be passionate about growing vegetables in order to become a success.
There is a need for government intervention, such as building roads to ease transportation of vegetables to market and low cost of electricity to keep production cost low. But due to the low national budget, it is hard for us to depend on the government to support this sector.
This article has been edited for length and clarity