Many might find earthworms loathsome, but 23-year-old Sok Sothearath has no fear of the red wigglers. Instead, the Royal University of Agriculture graduate has made use of the creatures to innovate agricultural practices that promote sustainable development in the Kingdom.
With a passion for working with rural farming communities since she was a teenager, Sothearath has been actively working with organisations as part of her dream to set up worm houses across Cambodia to manage the increasing amount of organic waste and financially empower small farmers.
To that end, Sothearath co-founded a social enterprise which specialises in managing waste. It’s called Junlen, which translates to ‘earthworm’ from Khmer, the wiggling creatures that contribute much to the ecosystem.
“Junlen’s vision is to create a network of earthworm farms throughout Cambodia. The purpose of this technology is to scale up traditional farming into business farming for sustainability.
“Supporting small farmers is my passion and this has inspired me to create the Junlen project,” the agronomist tells The Post.
Sothearath is an agricultural project manager at the Red Dirt Road Foundation and works with small farmers to promote agricultural technologies in which Junlen is one.
The project is a sustainable waste management solution offering an efficient way to recycle organic waste into nutritious, high-quality compost.
“Junlen is starting small because we appreciate everyone harvesting the power of the earthworm,” she says, admitting that she felt unease when she touched an earthworm for the first time.
In 2017, Sothearath had a chance to visit Thailand, and it was the first time when she put her hands on earthworms at an exhibition booth.
“I was a bit uncomfortable at first but soon my fear disappeared when I learned more about the awesome things they can do and the potential they have to benefit the environment, contribute to food security and even help to end poverty,” she says.
During her research as an intern for an agricultural project working with disabled people, she stumbled upon vermiculture technology, which she considered suitable because it does not require a lot of effort and can generate a good income at the same time.
Combining her Thai experience with her new knowledge of vermiculture technology, she returned to Cambodia with a new idea to develop and implement.
“When I came back to Cambodia, I told my professors at school about my experience and they gave me about one kilogramme of red worms and vermicompost,” she says.
Sothearath started raising the red worms and vermicompost at Harpswell Foundation Dormitory and Leadership Centres for Women in Phnom Penh.
After six months, the result was unexpected with the earthworm population having grown exponentially. She finally transformed the earthworm to organic waste and nutrient-rich fertiliser through a vermicomposting technique.
“Vermicomposting is a method of using worms to transform organic waste into a nutrient-rich fertiliser. Vermicompost or vermiculture is the product of the composting process using various species of worms to create a mixture of decomposing vegetable or food waste, bedding materials and vermicast.
“Simply put, vermicompost is earthworm excrement, called castings, which can improve the biological, chemical and physical properties of the soil,” she says.
The main resource to produce vermicompost is the earthworm, Sothearath says, so she named her innovative project “Junlen”.
The products are mainly vermicompost, earthworm, and installation and education training services. Sothearath has achieved success with small farmers for two years and continues to work toward a sustainable community with Junlen.
She first started to introduce this new technology to farmers in Samaki Meanchey district, Kampong Chhnang province, because they are vulnerable groups and garment workers, who are challenged in terms of health, food, nutrition and public services.
To improve their economic status and livelihood, they send their children to work abroad, she says.
“With this innovation, the farmers are moving forward from vulnerable communities to live better than ever,” says Sothearath.
Junlen has won several awards such as the Honda Foundation Award, 2019, Dak Dam Incubation Programme, 2019, and YSEALI Incubation Programme, 2020.
The inexpensive process only takes two to three months to produce results. It improves the root structure and plant growth. The increase in crop yield is also noticeable.
“Moreover, vermicompost enhances plant growth, suppresses disease in plants, increases porosity and microbial activity in the soil, and improves water retention and aeration,” she adds.
However, she has to overcome two major challenges – people’s inability to organise waste by type and vermiphobia.
“It’s pretty sad that our people don’t recognise the uses of their resources as farmers while other countries are putting them into practice.
“The challenges are in the mindset of the people, in managing their wastes. That has to be changed, and their fear of these little lovely earthworms. Also, it is so difficult to promote this technology to Muslim farmers because of their fear of earthworms,” she says.
But she overcame a milestone when she found an innovative farmer, who then inspired another eight others to start using the techniques.
“After that, the whole community followed through. This motivates me to create a better future for agriculture in Cambodia. I believe the youth can bring technology and quality leadership skills to create healthy foods for humankind,” she says.
Though some issues still linger, she wants to strengthen aspects of the Junlen business such as quality control, marketing and delivery while working actively to expand the network across the country.
“Supporting small farmers is my passion and this has inspired me to create the Junlen project. I strongly believe that our Junlen network will spread out from individual households to communities and the country,” she says.