One of the most successful applications of American aid money in Cambodia has been the US$26 million, 7-year Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise (MSME) project headed by Chief of Party Curtis Hundley of Development Assistance International (DAI).
Hundley, who finishes the project later this year after seven years in Cambodia, says there’s a whole lot more activity in the pig and fish trade than there was when they started. He took time to review what’s happened since the project began in 2005.
“Pigs and fish are cornerstones in rural economic development. When we started, everybody was just subsistence farming. In the fish ponds, 50 per cent of the fingerlings were dying and 50 per cent of the pigs were dying. There was no access to vaccines and not many big traders and not many buyers were interested in the rural areas,” Hundley said.
At that time, the government wasn’t offering any technical assistance and there weren’t many relationships across what Hundley calls the “supply chain”.
“There was no critical mass of producers,” he said.
Starting out in the five provinces of Kampong Cham, Prey Veng, Svay Rieng and Kratie, Hundley and his team focused on building relationships between “actors” in the supply chain.
“We got input from suppliers of medicines and vaccines in Phnom Penh to go to the provinces and give free technical assistance. Now farmers had someone to call for advice. We looked for people with an incentive to help other people.”
Hundley said the sellers of the medicines and vaccines had the incentive to procure their own customers in the provinces.
“Once the pig and fish farmers got good at raising pigs and fish and started having a market access, we had to look for people who could buy those products. We found traders in town to go out to provinces. These were self-forming trading groups.”
Once the relationships were created, the buyer from Phnom Penh could ask for a phone call from the farmer when he had 30 pigs ready to sell, and he would come with a truck and pick them up.
“Now they could get their money instantly and ship their product to Phnom Penh,” Hundley said.
As a result of the program 7,000 direct clients were created, 30 to 40 thousand indirect clients.
“The clients generally self-select to start and we continue to work with those who auto-take the advice that is offered by private sector. There’s government officers in everything we do, but part of the supply chain.”
The program engaged local villagers at the sector-specific level, town and village level. USAID’s MSME program provided direct technical assistance in strategic communications training, working with associations, cooperatives and officials on how to research an issue and how to present the issue to the cooperative and government officials.
“We’ve mended the fractured relationships through fun activities and easy-to-understand dialogue between the parties.”
During the first three years of the project, having spent $5 million, Hundley said 1,800 direct clients were engaged, resulting in a 2.5 times multiplication of investment.
“We got a $12.5 million investment from our $5 million US invested,” he said.
“These are all sustainable relationships. When we leave in four months from now, all the things we have left behind are sustainable. We are leaving 7,000 businesses in place making money,” he said.
The first such US economic development project in Cambodia, the USAID MSME project has a total of 80 employed.
Hundley, 58, is not sure where his next project will be, but is optimistic that there are plenty such projects around the world. He says he’d be happy to work in Vietnam, the Philippines or Burma; Laos, Thailand or Mexico.
“We show people that they already have it inside of them to be successful in business. Like in the movie The Wizard of Oz. We help bring that out. They have trust, confidence and vision. If you have that you can go out and advocate for money, and go out and do the things you need to do.”
Hundley said it was a good time for the project to end.
“Tens of thousands of people now have confidence and trust and can benefit from the economy.”
Hundley says Cambodians have a real entrepreneurial spirit.
“Given the opportunities, Cambodians can compete with Thais and Vietnamese easily. I think we’ve made a sustainable difference and you can’t turn back what we’ve done. What we’ve started is going to keep growing without us.”
Always a private sector entrepreneur himself, Hundley started out at eight years old selling vegetables door to door in his native Iowa, having a newspaper route and later started buying and selling houses.
“This is so much fun because you get to make a difference in thousands of people’s lives. This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire life. My goal is to find another exciting project where I can make a difference in thousands more lives. This project in Cambodia is different than any other project because we worked across the entire supply chain,” he said.