Rice production in Cambodia: the poor farmer’s perspective

By Nancy Thomas, Lendwithcare.org

Rice production in Cambodia: the poor farmer’s perspective

Rice farming in Cambodia can be a tough and uncertain business. Rainfall is highly erratic, both drought and floods being regular occurrences, land is often infertile or under-nourished and investment in new farming systems and technology is minimal. Yet approximately 60% of the Cambodian population rely on agriculture (mainly rice production) for their livelihoods and unsurprisingly the vast majority of those are living on less than $1.25 a day. Despite government commitments to expand rice production and increase the country’s export capacity, the reality for the majority of farmers is stagnant growth and an uncertain future. Which is why, on a recent trip to Cambodia, I was keen to find out why so many of the entrepreneurs we have supported through lendwithcare.org are sticking to rice farming.

After all, Cambodia’s national economy has started to grow in recent years and industries other than agriculture are expanding at impressive rates. The garment and tourist industries, for example, have been increasing by an enormous 20% each year for the last two years. And the general population, no longer plagued by political oppression and war, are free to move both within and outside Cambodia. However, as the farmer-cum-taxi driver who took me to my hotel in Phnom Penh explained, urban migration is not only financially and emotionally tough but also unsustainable since the number of jobs available (and places to sleep) come nowhere near to meeting the demand. So for those who choose not to migrate, (around 80% of the population), their only goal is: “how to live better lives as farmers” (Pov Sok – lendwithcare entrepreneur)

One significant constraint for the vast majority of poor rice farmers is lack of capital. Without sufficient capital or access to affordable lines of credit, poor rice farmers find it virtually impossible to move beyond subsistence farming to producing a marketable surplus. This is where the services of local microfinance organisations can play a significant role in improving the lives of rural Cambodiansif they provide affordable and effective services. These services become even more significant and crucial to rural development when we consider how little the Cambodian government actually dedicates to the growth of agriculture -in 2010 for example they committed only 1% of the national budget to an industry that over half the population depend on.

As I met 21 Cambodian entrepreneurs (15 of whom were rice farmers) that lendwithcare.org has provided a line of credit I noticed the first thing a Cambodian farmer will tell you when you ask them how their business is doing is to talk about the rainfall. A shortage of irrigation systems means the majority of rice production in Cambodia takes place during the country’s monsoon season (wet season rice farming) therefore putting the success of rice production predominantly in the fate of the gods – which climate change has made even more unpredictable. However, the next thing all the entrepreneurs I met went on to tell me was how they were going to expand and increase production. They described how they planned to buy better quality seeds, expensive (but essential) fertiliser and insecticide, more land, and essential machinery. All with the credit that was now available to them through the local microfinance organisation.

Take Sophan, for example, a female rice farmer who lives in the lowland plains of north-western Cambodia, who described to me in great detail the back-breaking work involved in preparing her four hectares of land for rice cultivation. Sophan, who is lucky enough to to produce wet and dry season rice (she captures receding rainwater to produce during the dry season) explained that without sufficient capital it is virtually impossible for her and her husband to prepare their land on time or plant enough rice to produce a marketable surplus.

A rice field needs to be prepared (soil ploughed, water pumped in and/or out, fertiliser and insecticides manually applied, and weeds manually removed) and rice crops planted (this is always done manually by either transplanting from a nursery or scattering). And although some farmers will have enough money saved from the previous season to complete a part of this cycle, insufficient capital often means land has too much water or not enough since farmers cannot afford the machinery or labour required to pump in and out water or land is un/in-sufficiently fertilised. Sophan said that when capital is short in her household they are not able to prepare all their land and therefore produce lower yields. With the credit she via lendwithcare lenders, Sophan told me they have been able to produce on all their land and she now hopes that as their farming becomes more efficient they will be able to purchase more land. Another entrepreneur, Khon, who told me she was able to purchase a small fishing boat with credit when her rice paddies were destroyed in the terrible floods of 2011 and had used the boat to generate an alternative source of income for her family by fishing on the flooded land.

Of course, access to credit is not the only answer to rural development in Cambodia. The terrible floods in 2011 remind us that natural disasters have a disproportionate and devastating effect on the poor. However, credit and the power it has to help those living on low incomes to move just that little bit beyond pure subsistence farming can definitely help (even when disasters strike). Sophan, Khon told me that even though farming was tough and their incomes were sometimes unpredictable they would not change what they do. Perhaps because they felt rice farming was all that they know or because they felt there were no opportunities for them in the growing cities. I do not know. However, they were all adamant that their children would not become farmers and with the education they could now afford to give them they had different opportunities available to them – and without exception all three women had achieved this goal.

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