Since my first tour in Cambodia in the late1990s, I have been convinced that Cambodia possesses the resources necessary to become an economic dynamo like Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand.
But, I have also learned that those resources – a young workforce, strategic location, agricultural riches, and a competitive textile industry – need guidance and support to help Cambodia reach its economic potential.
A major focus of my time in Cambodia has been to identify sectors that could thrive with the help of US networks, companies and expertise. I am very proud to say that – working with Cambodian youth and women, the private sector, as well as the government – we have had a number of successes in supporting Cambodia’s economic transformation.
In 2016, we convinced the US Trade Representative to expand Cambodia’s duty free access to the US market to include travel goods, which are backpacks, suitcases, and similar products. In partnership with the Commerce Ministry, our Embassy organised a road show to Hong Kong to encourage manufacturers there to invest in Cambodia.
The impact has been huge. Cambodian travel goods exports to the US rose from $48 million in 2015 to over $200 million last year, and are on track to reach $500 million this year. Foreign investment in the travel goods sector surged, creating new employment for thousands of workers.
I feel gratified that strong cooperation with the government and the power of the US market helped create Cambodia’s first, post-textile industry.
We have also worked hard to raise the profile of Cambodia’s small, but dynamic technology industry. We have drawn in US tech companies and venture capital firms, sent Cambodia’s tech leaders to the US to learn from Silicon Valley experts, and helped integrate local companies into the very hot Southeast Asia tech scene.
As a result, Cambodia’s tech startups are no longer the best-kept secret within Southeast Asia. The industry is moving forward, providing greater opportunity for young people and contributing to Cambodia’s broader economic development.
Cambodia has a large agricultural sector but needs more technology. A trade mission in September brought the biggest names in US agribusiness to Phnom Penh – ADM, Cargill, John Deere, 3M, and others.
It established connections between those companies and Cambodia’s market leaders and highlighted the positive change underway in Cambodian agriculture.
By introducing more world-class US products and services to the agriculture market here, we hope productivity and yields will increase, Cambodia will become more advanced in agriculture processing, and greater investment in the sector will follow.
Cambodia’s very enthusiastic female entrepreneurs are a potentially powerful source of growth, and the Embassy has worked hard to support them.
Last year, we sponsored an all-female delegation to attend the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad, and just recently, we sent a top-notch group of women to the US to learn about how US cities and states promote entrepreneurship. USAID has launched a new, five-year programme to aid Cambodian women entrepreneurs.
I’ve learned how connecting Cambodia’s female entrepreneurs to US companies and professional networks can empower them and encourage them to move forward. These connections can help Cambodia’s businesswomen break down barriers, lead to world-class training opportunities, and pass along best practices. With continued support, Cambodia could market itself as the best country for women entrepreneurs in Asean.
As I prepare to depart Cambodia, our work boosting the economic ties between the US and Cambodia has shown the benefit of a strong and committed partnership between our two countries. Our connections to Cambodia and its people are strong. We can achieve a great deal by working together – through cooperation and partnership.
And when I return to Cambodia someday in the not too distant future, I look forward to seeing the positive impact of the relationships that we helped to forge, and the many others that will develop in the future.
William A Heidt is the outgoing US Ambassador to Cambodia