Lemongrass, once a fragrant grass in Sopheas commune’s Sambo village in Kampong Cham province’s Stung Trang district, has become a vital income source, thanks to a new canal supported by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). 

This key infrastructure enhances irrigation in the Sambo Meanchey Agricultural Cooperative, leading to more efficient practices and a substantial increase in crop yields.

“Lemongrass is catching on, easy to grow and adaptable. It’s gaining popularity, with more folks, including the elderly, expanding their farmland thanks to ample water sources,” shares Phuth Sarith, a community member.

Sarith, who used to cultivate rice and pumpkins, shifted to rice and lemongrass. Since the concrete canal came into play, his yields have surged three to four times, depending on the rice variety.

In the past, when rice prices slumped and water was scarce, he could only harvest three tonnes per hectare. Now, with better irrigation, his yield has jumped to between four and six tonnes.

He says that the community’s progress has significantly improved lives, giving credit to the support from the ADB and the government.

Consequently, the agricultural cooperative has enjoyed a significant boost in income, not just from lemongrass but also from other thriving crops, thanks to the enhanced water supply.

This canal has truly transformed the landscape, promoting not only agricultural expansion but also economic stability and prosperity across the entire community.

Mam Kimhong, chairwoman of the cooperative’s oversight committee, recognises the myriad benefits of the new canal. She highlights that, in the past, even travelling on the road was a challenging task for residents.

“Now we can grow two or three rice crops and harvest lemongrass twice per year,” she shares.

This success is thanks to the support from the ADB, making roads and canals possible. Before, the community planted rice once a year, and lemongrass wasn’t in the picture; instead, it was crops like corn, soybeans, beans and potatoes taking the spotlight.

The cooperative’s growth and ventures

Established in December 2010, the cooperative, initially comprised 88 members including 50 women, now thrives with nearly 2,000 members, over 800 of them women. 

Phen Vuthy, a board member, reminisces about their modest start with just over 8 million riel ($2,000); today, their stock exceeds 3 billion riel (around $730,000), represented by 17,376 shares.

The Sambo Meanchey Agricultural Cooperative, like similar ventures, plays a vital role in supporting the Kingdom’s agricultural sector, a key component of its economy. It concentrates on cultivating local crops, adopting sustainable farming practices and integrating modern agricultural technologies.

The cooperative’s initiatives involve training farmers in new techniques, coordinating collective sales for better prices and striving to enhance the overall living standards of its members. 

Diversifying into various agricultural products, including rice, lemongrass and fruits, the cooperative serves large-scale buyers like Makro supermarkets.

“In our annual lemongrass market, we sell over 1,500 tonnes, expanding our supply period significantly from six to 11 months per year,” Vuthy shared during a presentation to senior officials from the ADB.

The cooperative goes beyond agriculture, offering community services like transportation, credit facilities and money transfers. They also supply organic fertilisers and agricultural materials.

Thanks to the Tonle Sap Poverty Reduction and Smallholder Development Project – Additional Financing (TSSD-AF), the community gained a rice paddy depot in 2014, measuring 8x12m. 

TSSD-AF enriched the community with an 875m concrete canal, fostering rice production, market access, study tours and water pumps.

“Lately, ADB projects have built concrete canals, greatly helping the community. Before the project, our crops regularly suffered water shortages from insufficient canal drainage for irrigation,” Vuthy explains.

ADB’s contribution to agricultural diversification

TSSD-AF stands out as a significant initiative, aiming to boost productivity and enhance market access across 270 communes in Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, Prey Veng, Siem Reap and Tbong Khmum provinces.

Since the construction of the climate-resilient canal, cooperative members have broadened their agricultural practices, introducing crops beyond rice. These diverse products now reach markets across the country, and they have even set up a facility for distilling lemongrass oil.

This venture serves as a blueprint for diversifying agriculture, adapting to climate challenges and fostering sustainable livelihoods.

ADB country director Jyotsana Varma pointed out that without the concrete canal, the water from the lake would be absorbed by the soil and would not reach the extended end.

“The canal ensures year-round water availability, allowing farmers to diversify their crops beyond rice, to lemongrass, cashews, cassava and more,” she explains.

The cooperative strategically blends production planning, marketing networks and contract farming to engage both urban and rural buyers. 

Specific commodity groups, like the rice seed producer group and lemongrass producer group, have been established.

“Each group has a marketing network for the sale of their produce, with proper production and sales planning based on market demands,” says Varma. 

She mentions that each group has crafted contract farming agreements, ensuring members are informed in advance about the prices of the produce.

Impact on families and the future

The canal has had a positive impact on over 900 families, allowing them to expand their crops to include herbs, sweet corn, watermelon, coconut and cassava.

“With a project budget of around $230,000, the ADB has not only facilitated the construction of the canal and warehouse but has also transformed the agricultural cooperative into an effective community-based organisation, specialised in agricultural production and marketing,” Varma says. 

The community has asked for ongoing support from the project to construct an additional 1,500m of concrete canals.

“If we are able to construct an additional 1,500m of canals, folks here will grow rice and lemongrass non-stop. We can boost rice yields from 300 to 500 tonnes per year,” says Vuthy.