From the first women entrepreneur to introduce drones for agricultural use in Battambang, to a female commune council member who can focus on office work and rice farming at the same time thanks to an innovative irrigation system, Cambodia-Australia Agricultural Chain Programme (CAVAC) has established many model partnerships which empower women farmers.

CAVAC recently worked with agricultural company Angkor Green and the provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to deliver a series of training sessions on two major cash crops: cashew nuts and durian. Around 440 women across 16 provinces attended the sessions, held in April and May.

According to the programme, only 10 per cent of the Cambodian farmers with access to agricultural extension services are women. Transportation issues, social norms and attitudes, remoteness or household responsibilities prevent large numbers of women from gaining access.

“For women, limited access to modern techniques and knowledge is one of the constraints that hampers the growth of their agriculture yields, and thereby income,” Mohammad Shahroz Jalil, CAVAC team leader, told The Post.

“Knowledge and know-how on crop care – pruning, soil fertility, pest management and fruit bearing – is also crucially important in the context of climate change and the rural labour shortage,” he added.

Funded by the Australian government, CAVAC has been running since 2010. With a combined budget of around $90 million, the programme provides sustainable irrigation schemes, introduces mechanisation – which accelerates farming productivity – and builds the capacity of women farmers in modern planting and nutrient and pest management techniques.

It works with Angkor Green, a growing local company that sees significant potential in the agricultural market in Cambodia, and offers training in modern techniques.

“Owing to this mutual interest, and the investments made by Angkor Green on extension services, CAVAC decided to partner with them in this initiative,” said Jalil.

Bou Sophal, development and cooperation project manager for Angkor Green, said that the company had previously worked twice with CAVAC. This third project focused on women’s empowerment in agriculture, with more than 50 trainings held across the Kingdom.

“When it comes to farming, most women depend on men, who are physically stronger. This perception has lingered since ancient times when humans were the main source of labour in the fields. Men played a strong role in traditional farming, but physical strength is no longer the crucial factor it once was,” he told The Post.

Sophal – who has travelled nationwide to train men and women in modern farming – believes that Cambodian women will be more heavily involved in agriculture once they’re equipped with modern techniques and mechanisation.

“Actually, women are often found to be more willing to absorb new knowledge modern agricultural techniques, from the use of digital smart controllers and apps, to remote control farming,” he added.

Cash crop: cashew nut and durian

Working with CAVAC, Angkor Green trained women farmers in the production of two lucrative cash crops which offer good market value – cashew nuts and durian.

“With these two crops, women will play an important role. We taught them the benefits of modern machinery, effective spraying, and nutrient and pest management. Most importantly, we also trained them on how to manage their incomes and expenses,” said Sophal.

Jalil said the value chains for cashew nuts and durian consist of a higher proportion of women than most other crops, meaning they were an excellent way of helping to empower women economically in a sustainable manner.

“Moreover, the success of these two crops contributes to income generation of female labourers in local communities. Women workers do 50 per cent of the pruning and 70 per cent of the harvesting of cashew nuts,” he added.

Women farmers and climate change

With years of experience working in the field, Sophal has learned that a growing number of farmers are open to learning new ways to adapt to climate change.

“Farmers have become more aware of the threat, and know they will need new skills to deal with it. Some new machinery and equipment helps, and climate change resistant strains of crops have been developed. Improved farm management is also key,” he said.

Two examples of mechanisation CAVAC has successfully introduced are laser land levelling equipment and agriculture drones for spraying. Introduced through private companies, they enable more competitive production costs for rice farmers, especially in the context of climate change and the rural labour shortage.

“The majority of these two types of equipment are being used by small-hold farmers, including families with female heads,” said CAVAC’s Jalil.

One of them is Tou Kosal, the first entrepreneur in Battambang province to introduce drones for agricultural spraying.

“I was delighted to be the first person to bring drone technology to my community,” she said.

Following their initial success, she added more drones to the fleet. She now plans to purchase laser land levelling equipment, which can be used to level around 100ha of rice fields per year.

“After levelling their land accurately, farmers enjoy an increase in yield of at least one tonne per crop, and the increases last for up to five years. To date, there are three companies offering the lasers and seven involved in agricultural drones in the Kingdom,” said Jalil.

There are eight women-led service providers in Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampong Thom, Prey Veng who offer services with both kinds of tech, with the support of CAVAC.

“It is expected that these women-led agricultural mechanisation servicing businesses will inspire other women to consider jumping into similar modality,” he added.

Key constraints relating to input access, quality compliance, and post-harvest issues still disrupt agricultural performance occasionally.

“Through this Australian supported programme, these constraints are being addressed; however, changes are likely to be experienced gradually,” said Jalil.

“Beyond that, there are external factors which provide further challenges. The pandemic and the Ukraine war both interrupted supply chains, which led to price spikes in fertilizer, fuel and crop protection, and placed greater demand on transport systems.”