A milling plant that promises to boost Cambodia’s troubled rice industry opened this week, with farmers unloading their wet season crops at a polished new warehouse along National Road 4.
The owners of the Angkor Kasekam plant boast that their $6 million facility is capable of milling rice to the highest international standard, and may reopen lucrative rice markets like Hong Kong to Cambodia’s long-suffering farmers.
The plant, located 23 km west of Phnom Penh, has 25,000 members, according to Chieu Hieng, the chief executive officer of Angkor Kasekam Roongroeung Co Ltd. The plant’s managers expect to buy 30,825 metric tons of unmilled rice this year, its first year of operation.
“The farmers are happy with their rice harvest,” said a farmer as he negotiated a price for his paddy—or unmilled rice—at the Angkor Kasekam plant. “We could have good quality rice for export because of this plant.”
The rice markets fluctuate frequently, and this week farmers were earning 550 riels (about $0.14) per kg on their harvest. Farmers have so far delivered 6,000 tons of unmilled rice to Angkor Kasekam.
Rice farmers in Cambodia have long struggled to compete with rice crops internationally due to poor soil and poor seed varieties. The devastation brought by 30 years of war hindered efforts to develop the nation’s rice industry. Today farmers pay high transportation costs because of poor roads, and exorbitant customs taxes often make Cambodian rice too expensive for international markets.
The mills of Cambodia, older and less technologically advanced, typically produce rice of poorer quality than the markets demand, Chieu Hieng said.
The company plans to export 20,000 to 30,000 tons of white rice in its first year of operation, or enough to generate about $10.5 million if the world market pays $400 to $420 per ton of rice, according to Chieu Hieng.
Some problems remain. For instance, the farmers said the rice seeds distributed by the plant did not bloom as they expected.
“This year the rice harvest was not very good because some rice were fruitless,” said farmer Bon Kea. “The mill lent me 50 kg of rice seeds, but only 20 percent worked. I don’t know why it did not grow very well.”
Poor seed quality is a common problem in Cambodia. The country required rice imports to feed the nation as recently as 1988. Since 1995, Cambodia has had a surplus of rice to export to Thailand and Vietnam.
This year’s surplus of milled rice equivalent is estimated at 200,000 kg, according to Harry Nesbitt of the Cambodian International Rice Research Institute-Australia Project. The organization has helped develop the rice industry in Cambodia since 1988.