Almost a decade ago, farmer Reth Pheach and his community in Kampong Thom province found themselves facing significant challenges brought about by declining incomes from their rice cultivation.

While many of his fellow farmers opted to migrate to other countries in search of work, he and 13 other residents of Balang Lech village in Stung Sen town’s Damrei Choankla commune formed a rice seed production group, under the Tonle Sap Poverty Reduction and Smallholder Agriculture Development Project (TSSD-AF).

The group was formed in 2014. And despite suffering a major setback during its first year – when their crop was compromised by impure rice seed, leading to failed production – the farmers opted to continue with their plans. 

The subsequent year marked a turning point. The group received high-quality, pure rice seed, courtesy of assistance from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other development partners. 

This intervention was pivotal, as it enabled the group members to achieve substantial yields of eight tonnes per hectare. 

“Encouraged by this success, the group experienced a steady increase in membership, eventually growing to approximately 40 farmers who collectively cultivate 70ha of rice fields,” explained Pheach, who now serves as a “model” farmer. 

Although fraught with challenges, particularly when the project was in its infancy, their current progress showcases the potential for growth when smallholder farmers receive the appropriate support.

The seed production group conducts ongoing research into many different rice varieties, with a focus on resilience to climate change and alignment with local and export markets. 

According to the ADB, they have established a system which promotes increased rice yields and secures new markets, while showcasing the benefits of community ownership, sustainable livelihood enhancement, and climate-resilient agricultural practices.

Community benefits

ADB country director Jyotsana Varma said the project supports two agricultural stations in Kompong Thom and Siem Reap provinces which produce high-quality, registered rice seed through the use of foundation seed purchased from the state-run Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI).

“It includes development initiatives for improved agricultural techniques that reflect the needs of local communities, and addresses issues of low productivity, the pervasive use of low-quality rice seed, weak value chains, and the rice sector’s high vulnerability to climate change,” said Varma, during a December 7 field meeting with farmers in Balang Lech village.

She explained that high-quality registered rice seed from the agriculture stations can generate an increase in yields of up to 25 per cent.

The project also trains modern techniques to the group members, including transplanting, correct fertilisation at each growth stage, water management, weed control, and the management of other factors that significantly promote higher yields. 

“As the groups have contracted farming agreements every year with the agriculture stations, their rice seed market is guaranteed, and the price almost doubles,” added Varma. 

The budget for supporting the seed production group in Balang Lech is $30,000. This includes the cost of warehouse and drying facilities, seed planting machines and other accessories used for cleaning and packaging the seeds, as well as capacity building through training for the 40 members of the group.

According to ADB Senior Project Officer Hem Chanthou, the price of the seed varies, depending on the specific variety, but 100 per cent pure “foundation seed” can be bought for as much as $4.50 per kilogramme.

“The seed production group purchases foundation seed for cultivation. This then bears a type of seed known as ‘registered’ which can be certified and then sold to the general public,” he said.

Varma added that thanks to high yields and price increases through contract farming sales, the members now earn a net margin of $250-$500 per hectare.

Ham Nil, a member of the group who benefits from the additional financing through the TSSD-AF project, expressed the joy of the group members at the improvements to their livelihoods.

“One positive outcome is that it has enabled my children to pursue higher education,” she said.

“My eldest daughter completed high school and is now attending university. Another of my children is currently in the 12th grade and aspires to continue schooling, especially when the rice yield is favourable,” she added.”

Vath Kim Cheang, director of the Balang Agricultural Station in Balang Lech village, explained that the station, originally a simple wooden warehouse, had received aid though the ADB, including a truck and tractor.

“I have formed contracts to purchase seeds from farmers. Originally, we began at 29 tonnes, but this has expanded each year and now stands at 100 tonnes,” he said.

Flexible response to challenges

Model farmer Pheach said that earlier this year, while facing drought conditions in August, the cultivated area decreased from 70ha to 58ha, with a yield of two tonnes per hectares.

Water scarcity continues to pose a challenge for the farmers of the group as, due to the absence of irrigation, they rely heavily on natural rainfall.

However, Pheach and his team were able to adapt by shifting from regular rice production to seed growth. The change was driven by the higher prices of rice seed, which averaged from 1,700 to 1,800 riel ($0.40 to $0.44) per kg, at a time when regular rice was trading for 1,000 per kg or less.

Despite the occasional water shortages, he said that he and his fellow farmers continue to achieve high incomes, supporting their children’s education and reducing the need for migration.

Sa Paho, provincial project support team leader and deputy chief of administration at the provincial hall, highlighted the geographical challenge of irrigating 50-60ha in the highlands.

“If we had the opportunity, we could establish large-scale irrigation infrastructure with a budget of $1 million,” he said.

“In subsequent projects, we would like to construct a dam to facilitate irrigation that would be suitable for cultivating a rice harvest two or three times a year,” he added.

ADB support for processing

Ros Sopharith, CEO of Kompong Thom Rice Mill, often referred to as 1688 Rice Mill, described how the government had facilitated a loan from the ADB.

Financed by a concessional loan of $2,211,880, with a 10-year loan period, a five per cent interest rate and a three-year grace period, the loan has been instrumental in expanding the capacity of his business to export rice to Europe and several Asian countries. 

“The mill purchases rice from farmers across Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces. Nationwide, we purchase around 50,000 tonnes a year,” said Sopharith. 

“The loan from the ADB not only helped to expand our capacity in terms of exports, but also enables us to buy rice directly from farmers across the country,” he added.

He believes that the entire process – from purchasing and rice milling to processing and exporting – involves thousands of families and has created job opportunities for at least 50 individuals.

The products from the mill are exported to more than 40 countries, including Sweden, Finland, Germany and Italy.

Citing the reflections of each of the projects’ management and members, Varma said that leadership that is open and transparent plays a critical role in fostering trust and guaranteeing its sustainability. 

“In addition, key elements such as frequent group meetings to strengthen management, sharecropping during urgency (usually for transplanting), and quick cash returns to all members from the sale of rice seed to the agriculture station foster community ownership and sustainable livelihoods,” she added.