BATI DISTRICT, Takeo province – At a farming school here last week, 150 poor agricultural workers gathered to celebrate graduating a two-month training course. The new group of educators will now set out with their newly acquired skills to help transform the country’s poorest rural families from subsistence farmers into successful agribusinesses.
One of the new trainers is 55-year-old Neou Ket, a farmer from Takeo province who owns a single hectare of land. Until now, he has managed to grow enough rice and vegetables to feed his family and exchange produce for other goods in his village.
But he seeks a more prosperous life and says to achieve such a reality rural communities desperately need basic training in how to properly cultivate their land.
“We need to learn simple things, like when we sow a lot of rice in one place it wastes a lot of seeds, or about what soil is best or which fertilizer to use and sometimes we use too much pesticide,” he said, explaining that he wanted to use his recent training to help modernize the very basic, traditional farming practices in his commune.
Agriculture remains the primary source of employment for Cambodians—with roughly 80 percent of people still living in rural areas. Yet while the country has seen a significant reduction in the number of Cambodians living below the poverty line, new opportunities are largely bypassing the rural population and most wealth creation has occurred in urban communities.
The training program at the agricultural school in Bati is the first stage of the Project for Agricultural Development and Economic Empowerment (PADEE), a recent joint initiative by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries (MAFF), the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and other partners.
Its goal is to lift the poorest rural families out of poverty by increasing the productivity and diversity of the crops they produce such as rice, vegetables, fish and poultry, and if they have no land to farm, training them in textiles, handicrafts or food processing.
Under a gloomy gray sky, trainers at the purpose-built training facility expressed optimism about the project’s potential as they demonstrated some of the techniques they had learned on the school’s practice rice paddies and vegetable plots.
One team of new instructors performed an electrical conductivity test using a battery, to assess the conductivity of water passed through different types of earth—a quick, simple and inexpensive way for farmers to check the health of soils and their ability to retain fertilizer.
Kim Thearo, a 23-year-old graduate student at the Royal University of Agriculture who helped train the farmers, held up a cabbage with perforated leaves to show the damage that pests can do if not properly controlled.
“The big problem for growing cabbages is flea beetle. It is hard for farmers to destroy them even though they use pesticide to try and kill them,” he said, adding that growing lemon grass around the cabbages, ensuring that they get enough light and watering them early in the morning to wash away the bugs is a more effective way to control the pest.
Training people to help poor farmers increase their yields is just one element of the PADEE project’s long-term goal to empower families on the bottom socioeconomic rung.
The project also plans to provide them with hard-to-come-by financial capital through group funds and to educate them in farm and business management.
The rural families targeted by PADEE are mostly too poor to avail of microfinance—the small, yet high interest loans lauded by development banks as a solution to rural poverty.
Families are sometimes unable to access these loans because they are illiterate and unable to fill out forms to open bank accounts. But in most cases, they either do not have land or when they do possess some they do not have a title to be used as a collateral.
“For farmers who own only a few acres of land and rely upon agriculture, escaping poverty is extremely difficult, so providing access to financial capital is crucial,” said Khalid El Harizi, country program manager for IFAD.
To determine the poorest families, PADEE does a so-called “wealth ranking exercise,” which the commune as a whole must agree with, to identify the bottom 50 households in 246 communes in 36 districts in the provinces of Kampot, Kandal, Prey Veng, Svay Rieng and Takeo—about 50,000 households in total.
Each group will then receive a grant of $4,000 per year for 3 years, or about $80 per group member per year, to operate as a shared account that will enable farmers to access the capital to purchase produce, material or to use it as collateral for microfinance loans. Members are expected to help manage the money, borrow from the pot and pay back it back to the group at low interest.
“The goal is that these communities will become credit cooperatives, and eventually graduate to become clients of microfinance and then customers of banks,” Mr. El Harizi said.
To get to that point, the families will receive mentoring over a 5-year period.
“The farmers are mostly illiterate, so for example, we can’t expect them all to become accountants. We need accomplished service providers to help the group master the necessary skills,” he said, adding that a trained team of mobile accountants would travel between communes on banking day to monitor the groups’ financial activity.
Recent studies have highlighted the problems with microcredit and argue that it is not a sustainable poverty reduction model due to the gap between the intended and actual uses of microloans.
In contrast, families borrowing from the PADEE group fund must complete each stage of training to show that they have acquired the right skills and commitment to enable them to run their businesses profitably.
Lean Thon, 46, a farmer from Takeo province with one hectare of land, said his family’s situation was made even worse when they borrowed money from a microfinance institution to buy more produce, hoping they could grow enough rice and vegetables to sell.
“We got a microloan and became indebted because I did not know how to manage my land, but now I can apply what I have learned with my teachers such as the best ways to grow rice and vegetables and raising animals that I did not know anything about,” he said.
“Lack of capital is just one obstacle to agricultural development in Cambodia,” said FAO Regional Marketing and Rural Finance Officer Ralph Houtman.
“Empowering farmers by training them to use new technology, helping them to source and use new seeds varieties, and giving them access to financial markets are all part of an integrated set of obstacles the PADEE program hopes to address.”
The bulk of the $43-million, 5-year project is funded by IFAD in the form of a $17.5-million grant and a loan of the same amount, with the rest coming from the U.N.-funded FAO, the government and other development partners.
“Funds are provided through strictly supervised loans and grants. We are a development bank, not a charity—we are here to help the country, not hand the government money,” said Mr. El Harizi.
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