PHNOM PEHN, CAMBODIA - In early May I travelled to Phnom Penh for meetings and a workshop to launch the Cambodia Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture. The first thing that struck me before even touching down in Phnom Penh was the lack of greenery.
That evening, we attended a pre-launch event, hosted by the International Business Chamber, and through conversation, I learned that high temperatures and low rainfall were seasonal, but just not at these extremes. One lady mentioned that the conditions in some parts of the country were so extreme that cattle were dying in the fields; a story sadly reminiscent of the situation in Thailand last year. However, it was clear from other conversations, that these extreme conditions were not affecting the resolve of those seeking to improve the lives of Cambodian smallholders. These circumstances make cross-sector collaboration all the more essential to Cambodian agriculture.
This left me feeling energized about the difference that Grow Asia could make as we stepped into the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries early on Tuesday morning. It was here that we would be holding the official launch of the Cambodia Partnership for Sustainable Agriculture.
We were delighted to have His Excellency Ty Sokhun, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, to open the workshop. He set the stage by highlighting just how far Cambodian agriculture has come in recent years and stressed there is still a long way to go. The workshop was attended by about 80 people from private sector, farmer organizations, government, NGOs and donors. With His Excellency’s endorsement of the Grow Asia approach, the workshop attendees split into Working Groups.
The Working Groups formed were cassava, coconut, palm sugar, pepper, rice, and vegetables. I joined the cassava Working Group. It was apparent that there were knowledge gaps, incomplete supply chains, regulatory challenges, but also very clear opportunities for the crop. I learned that it is traditionally sold for ethanol production but in recent years is being beaten out of the market by more efficient corn varieties. Cassava remains an excellent crop to produce starch, however Cambodia is lacking the processing operations needed to realize this potential.
When (naïvely) raising the issue of there being a lack of water in Cambodia, I was very quickly corrected. I was told that there is more than enough water but the rains and the drought seasons are just becoming a lot longer, more extreme, and less predictable. We need to help Cambodia’s farmers to become more resilient to these changes in water supply.
After good discussions, the different Working Groups reported back to the whole group and there were clearly some shared themes: firstly, it seemed that there was a lack of clarity in the market. How much of a crop was being grown? In which province? Where was it being sold, processed? It seems that farmers are also lacking the agronomic knowledge to be more sustainable and productive; they need access to better technology in the form of crop protection and seeds. Access to markets was another issue. With over 100 million smallholder farmers as the engine of ASEAN agriculture, it’s never going to be easy to engage all the different gears needed to drive the engine forward.
H. E. Ty Sokhun closed the workshop with a question. Holding up the signup sheets for each of the Working Groups he asked; “will you all continue to be members of these Working Groups?” His question was an important one, and the answer could mean success or failure. He went on to point out that it is only with the full support and engagement of all partners that we can hope for the Working Groups to be successful and to drive forward Cambodian agriculture.
As for next steps, Grow Asia will be supporting the partnership in exploring the option of a secretariat to help maintain this momentum. The Working Groups themselves will also be nominating leaders to coordinate the different value chain partners to ensure that objectives are met. As the different groups progress, Grow Asia will also play an active role in bringing new partners to the table. Only through creating an open and collaborative platform can the partnership succeed.
Manager, Country Partnerships (Mekong), Grow Asia