Initiative Encourages Private Rural Investment

Representatives from more than 90 Cambodian businesses gathered yesterday at the Council of Ministers building in Phnom Penh to hear about a new initiative that aims to encourage private sector investment in agriculture.

The $55.6 million project is an extension of the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Tonle Sap Poverty Reduction Project, which seeks to induce technology and other specialist companies to help develop small-scale agribusiness in Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap, Kompong Thom and Kompong Cham provinces.

“Part of our project is to send out community extension workers armed with laptops and tablets to give farmers access to better information or check share prices, but we need better connectivity, so this is one area where the private sector can come in,” said the ADB’s Nao Ikemoro, a senior project manager.

As the private sector is profit-driven, a $3 million fund is intended as an incentive for companies to research and develop the best ways of adapting information communication technologies, or ICTs, to benefit the rural poor. The fund will supply investors with up to $750,000 per project.

The goal is to bring the government, development agencies and the private sector together to solve the remaining barriers to growth without waiting on large infrastructural projects taking shape, such as rural electricity shortages being solved by a national grid.

“What use are laptops or tablets without electricity? But solar panels, for instance, are one innovation that can bring together private investment and solar panel aid projects,” said Kalnaovkul Bhuripan from the Embassy of Finland, a partner in the project.

Representatives from microfinance companies, cooperatives, information technology firms, mobile phone operators and a host of NGOs attended the event, but at a question-and-answer session there was confusion about how to apply for the fund, what the criteria are and what support would be offered to companies that may have little experience in such investments.

“The project lacks specifics—the private sector needs specific numbers to build business models,” said a representative from Smart Mobile.

Though Mr. Bhuripan agreed the project was complex, he assured the private sector that this was just the first stage of a series of consultations that would clarify the application process.

A senior adviser with the Netherlands Development Organization, Ly Sereyrith, said it was no surprise that people were confused because it was the first time they had been involved in this kind of event.

“There are still issues that need to be addressed, but this project has the potential to bring technology to help farmers really deliver their produce,” he said.

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