It’s a deceptively simple idea that begins with a hiss.
The purpose is to keep rats out of farmers’ fields, barns and warehouses without using pesticides, sometimes deadly electric fences or other rodent abatement methods that can be harmful to humans and the animals that live with them.
The solution scares rats away from rice and other crops by emitting the sound of a rodent’s natural predator—a snake—and sends them scurrying into no-kill traps. Live rats fetch a higher price as a food export to Vietnam and Thailand, providing farmers with an extra source of income.
But the “Rat Hunter”—at least right now—can’t be purchased in stores or from suppliers. It exists in the minds of its inventors, and as a rudimentary cardboard model constructed over a weekend earlier this month by a team of four problem-solvers at a Phnom Penh university.
“There is no concrete national data on the impact of rodents on rice crop in Cambodia. However, of all pests, farmers reported that rodents cause the highest damage, especially for dry season rice,” Leang Chanthy, a member of the group that is developing the prototype, said in an email.
From her work in the agricultural sector, Ms. Chanthy, 33, realized that farmers could benefit from technological innovations that address social and economic challenges, including rat infestations. Her idea was relatively simple: to build a better rat trap.
The judges at Phnom Penh’s “makerthon,” part of a 10-city regional competition organized by the Southeast Asia Makerspace Network (Seamnet), were impressed. Ms. Chanthy and her three teammates beat out 12 other teams competing in the first round from August 12 to 14. Phnom Penh’s contest was the second city competition, following a makerthon in Ho Chi Minh City in June.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hile nearly half of Cambodia’s labor force works in agriculture and a third of the country’s gross domestic product comes from the agricultural sector, very few crops are actually processed here, said Ki Chong Tran, one of the makerthon organizers and the founder of ARC Hub Phnom Penh, a 3D printing business. Most food producers don’t have access to the storage, refrigeration, transportation and processing infrastructure that would allow them to manage crops in a cost-effective way, from field to market.
So even though Cambodia is “agriculturally rich”—with plentiful land and water resources, and a climate favorable to growing food—raw materials are typically exported for processing, said makerthon co-organizer Nadia Wong, who lectures on entrepreneurship and law at the University of Puthisastra, which hosted the competition. “All the processing is being done in Vietnam and other countries,” she said.
Nearly 24 percent of Cambodia’s land area is under cultivation, according to 2013 figures from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), but less than 9 percent of cultivated land was equipped for irrigation in 2012. Eighty percent of the population still depends “fully or in part on agriculture for their livelihoods,” according to the FAO.
At the makerthon, many of the teams’ prototypes were designed to reduce labor-intensive processes and allow farmers to produce higher quality crops, or get a better price for their goods by allowing them to be stored for longer, until demand was higher.
“We learned that the processing industry is missing from the picture,” said Ms. Chanthy, a unit coordinator at the Cambodian Agricultural Value Chain program. “To sustainably develop the Cambodian agricultural sector, we can’t just rely on exporting to neighboring countries. We need to start thinking more about developing the local processing industry and how we should take advantage of new technologies and use them in agriculture.”
One way to promote innovation: hold a contest for would-be inventors. In a nutshell, a makerthon is a “product design competition” that emphasizes rapid idea generation and prototyping tangible products in a team setting, said Melanie Tan, the project lead for Seamnet’s regional makerthon.
The contest poses an important question, Ms. Tan said: “How can farmers take advantage of modern [design] techniques and the democratization of technology?”
Mr. Tran, the 3D printing business owner, had an answer. For one, “3D printing is great for producing prototypes rapidly,” he said in an email on Monday. “That means many new innovative ideas can be tested in the agriculture sector then improved, iterated and tested again. The more real-world testing is done for new ideas, the more robust these ideas will become.”
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n the second day of the Phnom Penh competition, Sreyneang Oun, 13, and Sopor Thanann, 14, leaned over a small table, with scissors and a roll of green duct tape in hand. Drawing from a sketch of their product prototype, as well as a computer-generated model, the teenagers said they were designing a machine that would protect farmers’ harvested rice from the rain and shorten drying times.
“[W]e thought, what if we protect the crops from the weather and help them dry faster?” said Oun, a ninth-grader at Liger Learning Center in Phnom Penh.
The product would store harvested rice, and an adjustable, reflective metal cover could deflect rain and be angled to maximize the sun’s drying potential. A prototype was constructed from cardboard and string, with squares of blue self-adhesive note paper representing the reflective metal panels on the underside of the cover—the key to their product’s success.
Oun cut crumpled paper into tiny strips, letting the pieces fall into the section of the prototype denoting the bin for harvested rice. Thanann, also a ninth-grader at Liger, said rural farmers face many challenges, including issues related to irrigation, transportation, marketing and climate change. “I, as a Cambodian, would like to help address these problems,” she said.
Makerthon organizers say the competition was intended to generate product ideas that would have a social impact, as well as perform a specific function, for the intended user—poor farmers. But beyond the design and entrepreneurial elements, the three-day makerthon event had another purpose: to encourage collaboration.
“In Cambodia, a lot of people work in silos. There’s some collaboration [between sectors], but very little,” said Ms. Wong, who is currently working with Mr. Tran to develop a coworking space and business startup incubator in Phnom Penh called Trybe.
“We want to see people come together and work together,” Ms. Wong said on the first day of the competition. The participants included “a lot of young people with energy and hope, wanting to make a difference through business.”
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Phnom Penh makerthon winners will receive training during an “incubation period” to improve their pitching skills, create a polished prototype and develop a business model, Ms. Tan said. In October, teams from 10 Southeast Asian cities will compete in Singapore in the first regional Seamnet competition. The final winners will have the opportunity to pitch their idea to investors, she said.
Even though only one team will compete in the regional makerthon, the contest’s runners-up will also receive weekly training and mentoring to continue developing their product, Ms. Wong said in a telephone interview.
The second-place team—two university students and two recent graduates—designed an eco-friendly refrigerated box that would be made of bamboo, burlap and other sustainable materials, and keep vegetables fresh from farm to market. They dreamed up a cooling system for the bottom of the box that could run on kinetic and solar energy, said team member Vantey Tan, a 23-year-old visual artist.
A foam sheet sandwiched between layers of cardboard and chicken wire made up each side of the prototype box, including a removable lid, which revealed string running along the inside joints of the boxes. The string represented small hoses that would pump water to a misting fan at the bottom, which would prevent produce from drying out while being transported from rural farms to urban markets.
Refrigerating crops is one thing, but what’s a farmer to do when rodents get to them before they are packaged and sold?
Back to the Rat Hunter, a machine that would be the size of a small stereo speaker with “a device that can emit enough sound range to reach half [a] hectare of field per unit,” Ms. Chanthy explained in an email.
“Rats have very sensitive hearing and they can hear from 200 hertz to 90 kilohertz so we don’t think it will be a big problem. Plus, they will be more attentive to their predator sound,” she said. Humans can typically hear up to only 20 kilohertz, whereas rats’ hearing is so strong they can make out a distinct sound when humans rub their thumb and index fingers together.
But before building a functioning prototype and testing it in a rice field with farmers, “we need to make sure the snake sound works,” said Mr. Lydet, 21, who graduated this month with a degree in development economics from the Royal University of Laws and Economics and works at the Development Innovations office in Phnom Penh.
The team has already acquired about a dozen test subjects—rats caught by farmers in Takeo province, which Ms. Chanthy picked up while traveling for her agricultural development job. They plan to test the rats’ reactions to recorded cobra and python sounds back in Takeo or Prey Veng province in the coming weeks, consult with a sound technician about amplification methods and eventually use a recording of a species of krait, cobra or viper found in Cambodia, like ones that rats would face in the wild.
Makerthon judges determined that the Rat Hunter team had what it takes to make their idea a reality, one that could help farmers keep rats out of their crops, sustain their businesses and possibly grow their industry.
“They gave a really good pitch that showed that they understood what was affecting farmers,” Ms. Wong said on Monday.
Technological innovation in Cambodia’s agricultural sector is just beginning to take off, especially compared to other nations’ use of advanced weather forecasting, remote sensors and drones, Ms. Chanthy said, but “the horizon for how technology can help in agriculture is big.”
“We are hopeful for Rat Hunter…[and] its potential impact in Cambodia and beyond.”