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What’s next for Cambodian rice?

Kann Kunthy, CEO of Battambang Rice Investment Co, speaks from his office in Phnom Penh
Kann Kunthy, CEO of Battambang Rice Investment Co, speaks to the Post from his office in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. Vireak Mai

What’s next for Cambodian rice?

In November, Cambodia won the coveted World’s Best Rice award for the fragrant variety. It was the second year in a row that the product finished first in the global competition, held this year in Hong Kong. Kann Kunthy, chief executive officer of Battambang Rice Investment Co, was a presenter at the competition. The Post’s Chan Muy Hong sat down with Kunthy to talk about what the award has done for rice exports, and what challenges to stay competitive lie ahead.

How is the World’s Best Rice award-winner selected?
Rice producers from around the world can submit rice samples to compete. I do not remember the number of competitors this time. But for the first round, six countries were selected to go to another round.

That included Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, India and the United States (California rice). There were three countries left after the second round: Cambodia, Thailand and the United States. Then Thailand was out. We were competing with California rice and we won. They judge the rice according to four criteria before and after it is cooked: the aroma, the overall look, the texture and the length of the grain.

The award is nice, but how has it helped farmers?
We first won in 2012. I didn’t think then that we had benefited from it. But this year, we have seen attention from both local and international media, and people keep talking about it. The award was won by Cambodian farmers. This award belongs to no one specifically, but to all the farmers out there who have grown quality rice. I think this award should be the starting point for relevant stakeholders to come together and push the whole sector forward.

What needs to be done?
The number one challenge is capital. We take loans to invest in rice millers. We take loans to buy paddy rice. Buyers do not pay us immediately, so the interest rate keeps going up. This is triple risk for us. We need a lower interest rate loan.

Number two is energy costs. Compared to nearby countries, Cambodia has a lower energy supply and it is expensive. It is quite a big deal for us because it makes our operational costs higher. Number three is transportation and logistics to export rice, which require money too. We need a cheaper way to transport rice. Finally, there is no marketing or public relations campaign to promote our rice to a wider market. I believe if we could link the rice sector with tourism through marketing, we could bring the fame of our fragrant rice to the globe while attracting more tourists.

What kinds of potential do you see in the rice sector?
We see more demand for Cambodian rice because Cambodian farmers are still using traditional ways of farming, which means we have better potential in producing better quality rice for export. Rice production in Cambodia is at nine million tonnes annually. I think in the future if we have better water management systems and we use all the available land to farm, Cambodia’s rice production could reach 20 million tonnes a year. If the government could provide information databases about soil mapping and where to seek quality seeds and what province has potential for what kind of rice, I think it will attract more investment that will help improve the whole rice sector.

What should be done to strengthen the competitiveness of Cambodia’s rice sector in the region?
The government should focus on marketing. The private sector should make rice quality better. In our case, we are planning to do contract farming with local farmers in which we will be working with them in selecting quality seeds, using soil and assisting them with farming techniques from our experts. ASEAN economic integration is approaching, meaning no tax will be charged on importing and exporting among the member countries. I think Cambodia should be ready in terms of competitiveness in price, quality and service.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

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