For most Cambodians, improving quality of life means improving the quality of crops. Agriculture is one of Cambodia’s most important economic sectors, owing to the fact that the vast majority of the population – a full 85 percent – are farmers.
Yet agricultural output in Cambodia lags far behind that of many countries, making it more difficult for farmers to live off their land. On average, Cambodian farmers yield less than 6 tonnes of corn per hectare of land, compared to the United States’ average of nearly 11 tonnes.
As a result, agricultural development has become a key area of focus for government leaders, NGOs and private companies alike. By introducing farmers to new techniques and technologies, they hope to improve quality of life for farmers and help boost output at every stage of production – from seed to sale.
Boosting food production starts with choosing the right seeds to plant. By using higher-quality seeds, farmers can ensure better growth from their crops before the planting even begins.
Seed quality has been one focus of the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), an NGO that provides training for new farming techniques. One aspect of its training is called the System of Rice Intensification, which helps farmers choose the right seeds to maximise their production.
“CEDAC is helping farmers grow organic rice, linking them to the market, and training them techniques in choosing between different varieties of rice,” said Yi Kimthan, director of CEDAC’s field programme. “We teach farmers the System Rice of Intensification because it’s a cheap way for farmers to achieve higher productivity.”
CEDAC also focuses on improving the quality of farmland, to make sure it’s being used most efficiently. Yi Kimthan said the way to accomplish that is to practice multipurpose farming, planting several different crops and using space creatively. “Multipurpose farms help farmers be more self-sufficient,” Yi Kimthan said. “They can make irrigation systems, grow both vegetables and rice, and even feed fish, all in one small farm. And when there is a surplus, farmers can sell those products to the market, as well.”
Prach Chres, a 73 year-old farmer from Takeo province, received CEDAC’s training for the System Rice of Intensification and multipurpose farming in 2001. He said that both techniques have had an impact on his farming practice and way of life. “When I followed traditional cultivation methods, I got only 1.5 tonnes per hectare from my land. But once I started practising the System of Rice Intensification, I got more and more productive, and now I produce 5.5 tonnes per hectare,” Prach Chres said. “I also started multipurpose farming, growing a variety of vegetables and using all-natural and compost fertilisers. I don’t have to spend money on chemical fertiliser anymore.”
CEDAC is just one example of the many groups that are helping to boost food production in Cambodia. The government, for its part, has helped introduced dozens of new strains of rice to farmers, as well as many varieties of vegetables and fruits by helping to fund the Cambodia Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI). Private companies such as DuPont and Heng Development are also importing new seeds, pesticides, and equipment to help farmers make the most of their land.
Though food production is the primary focus of many in the agriculture sector, efforts to help farmers don’t end with the harvest. Putting new technologies like radio broadcasts, text messages and the internet to use, farmers are finding new markets for their products and making more-informed business decisions.
“When farmers know more about the price of its vegetables, they will not be cheated by traders,” said Meach Yadi, acting chief of agriculture marketing at the Cambodia Agriculture Market Information Service (CAMIS).
CAMIS provides vegetable prices for farmers on their website, www.camis-kh.org, and broadcasts the information each Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening on the radio. Farmers can also use SMS text messaging to inquire about their products. “Any time anywhere, farmers can get the price of vegetable by sending messages,” Meach Yadi said. “If farmers are about to go to harvest and the price is low, they can wait a few days so that they can earn more.”
Kong Channy, a vegetable trader at Takhmao market, said she has been using the CAMIS service since 2008.
“The service is very good and important for my business because I don’t have to drive to other markets to ask the price of vegetables,” she said. “I just send a message, and I immediately get prices from other markets in the city, and even other provinces.” She said that the service has allowed her to gain insight into the market for her products, helping to develop her business and triple her previous income.
Although the potential for wireless technologies for farmers is huge, access remains a problem. To begin solving it, the Asian Development Bank has developed a project called the Tonle Sap Technology Demonstrations for Productivity Enhancement. The project aims to create telecommunication centres in rural areas to give farmers greater access to information.
“We will establish 20 telecom centres in four provinces and encourage local entrepreneurs to get involved,” said Hum Sophon, a rural business development expert with the project. “We must improve farmers’ access to the internet, because only 2 percent of population knows how to use it.”
Though internet access may provide more farmers’ with information in the future, text messaging is perhaps today’s readiest tool for improving farming knowledge.
The Ministry of Commerce has introduced a new market information system called the Electronic Market Communication System (EMCS), which provides market information for various agricultural and food products, as well as exchange rates and market demand for specific products.
“Using messages is not as hard as using the internet, and they do not have to know much English,” said Khath Chen, deputy chief of market management for EMCS. “We provide workshops to farmers and traders, and distribute guidebooks which contain product codes, so farmers will have easy access to the system.”
Due to network problems and the price of text messaging, Khath Chen said, the service has yet to truly take off, receiving only about 10,000 messages per month. But like other proponents of new agriculture technology, he remains optimistic that the future will bring farmers greater access to knowledge that will benefit their livelihoods. “If there are supports, we will be able to disseminate more information to farmers, and everyone will able to use the system.”