Community action

Award-winning farming

In late November, Battambang rice farmer Roeum Socheat received international acclaim for his work empowering Raingkesei agricultural community since 2017. Can his model provide hope for farmers across the Kingdom?

WHY WE WROTE THIS: Because the Raingkesei agricultural community offers hope for struggling rice farmers across Cambodia

Thim Rachna
December 31, 2019
Award-winning farming
A Cambodian man walks through a rice field in floodwaters at Pea Reang district in Prey Veng province, some 60km east of Phnom Penh in 2011. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

When Battambang rice farmer Roeum Socheat stepped on to the stage at an awards ceremony hosted in the illustrious surroundings of the Royal Geographical Society, a stone’s throw from the Royal Albert Hall in London’s most affluent neighbourhood Kensington, he could barely have been further from home – culturally and geographically. 

Wearing a red and blue krama – a nod to his roots – neatly tied over his smart-casual attire, and needing a translator to communicate with the doting audience, Socheat looked just as at home collecting his Volunteer Impact Award 2019 as he does in his usual surroundings – the rice fields of Raingkesei Agricultural Community. 

He was one of the five winners among 100 nominees from 25 developing countries, receiving the award from international NGO Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) for his work with the community, a rare success story for agriculture in Cambodia. 

  • Roeum Socheat with his award in Raingkesei. Photo: Thim Rachna
  • Roeum Socheat in London, England. Photo: VSO

Far from the glitz and glamour or London award ceremonies, on a typical working day the 34-year-old Socheat starts his morning riding through Battambang’s green rice fields, a two-kilometre journey from his home that he has done for over ten years. In his spare time, he tends to livestock, including chickens and cows, and finishes off chores around his house.

He chose to become a farmer after dropping out of high-school in 2004 as he was unable to financially support his education. Now, after 15 years toiling in the field, farming has become his family’s sole income generator. 

“Being a farmer in Cambodia is not easy. We [Cambodian farmers] still lack a lot of skills,” said Socheat. “When our rice is not doing well, we do not have the technical skills to solve the problems or know where to seek help.” 

But for Socheat, his work as a farmer extends far beyond planting rice. He has always been a pillar of his community, and, as of 2017, he has been a volunteer for an inter-country agricultural project based in his community Rangkeisei, initiated by VSO and its global partner Accenture. 

As part of VSO’s Improving Marketing Access for the Poor (IMA4P) project, Socheat has adopted the role of trainer for farmers in the community, and helps mend relationships in the community agricultural working chains. VSO’s project also identifies working gaps in the community and offers farmers training on agricultural techniques to increase the production quality through the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP), a multi-stakeholder alliance co-convened by the UN Environment Programme promoting resource efficiency and sustainability. 

“The work [with VSO] is not easy to juggle. People don’t always listen to us,” Socheat recalled. “But I want to help out with the community more. I don’t want to just develop myself alone.” 

Persevering through the challenges  

According to Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture, the percentage of the country’s population working in farming and agriculture shrank from 80% in 1993 to 40% as of 2017. Today, rice remains the most important agricultural product in Cambodia, taking up 3.3 million hectares of land and accounting for half of agriculture’s entire contribution to the Kingdom’s Gross Domestic Product (23.5% in 2018). 

But according to VSO Cambodia, Cambodian rice farmers remain at the mercy of global price fluctuations and limited market access, a lack of leverage and power in negotiations due to small productivity and tight competition, as well as high-costs for seeds, fertilisers and equipment.

While smaller farms with less than 5ha of land owned by poorer families hardly make any profit, especially if they do not own any machinery or technology to streamline their work. 

Beyond the technical problems inherent to low-level farming in Cambodia, finding a market for their products remains among the most significant challenges.

So when Socheat’s Raingkesei agricultural community formed in 2013 with just over 15 members, the purpose was to support each other and find solutions to these problems.

But despite banding together, it has not always smooth sailing for them, according to Raningkesei Agricultural Community deputy leader Yann Srey Yat.

Beyond the technical problems inherent to low-level farming in Cambodia, finding a market for their products remains among the most significant challenges.

“Even after all the hard work in the field, it was always a headache to find where we can sell our rice,” said 54-year-old Soy Chhum, a farmer from the community. 

Raingkesei community members used to farm only when they had enough water during the rainy season. But since the community irrigation system was developed in 2015 as part of the project, they can yield crops more than once a year. But despite Chhum being able to harvest as much as 42 tonnes of rice a year from his 6ha of land as a result, his business was still not guaranteed to turn a profit.

He recalled some of the horrors during the community’s earlier years when they were vulnerable to the whims of intermediaries. At times, they would lose as much as $1,000 per shipment when middle-men would discount the price of their rice truck after truck. 

“Most of the middle-men in the community who buy the rice from us know each other,” said Chhum, referring to the men who act as the interlocutors in getting their rice to the market. “We could go from one place to another, but they [the middle-men] would work together to lower the price as best as they could,” he said. 

Roeum Socheat in the rice fields of Battambang province. Photo: Thim Rachna

“Even when farmers use good seeds and get a really good harvest in the year, they usually receive a very low price. With high expense and little profit, it barely leaves them [farmers] with anything,” said deputy leader Srey Yat. “That problem really discourages them from further farming,” she added. 

But upon joining VSO’s IMA4P project in 2014, this slowly started to change. 

Today Raingkesei’s farmers have attained two milestones through the Sustainable Rice Platform and contract farming. With strength in numbers, the community now houses over 150 members, with VSO’s project working alongside the farmers to develop fair contracts with millers, ensuring supply meets demand and a reasonable price for their products. 

The project  has been implemented by VSO in three other countries facing similar issues – Malawi, Nigeria, and Tanzania – all with different agricultural focuses. In Cambodia, specifically Raingkesei community, improved market access has resulted in an increase in the farmers’  income by $604 per hectare – a nearly 500% increase on when the project first started. 

Through the programme, community farmers have been provided training on good agricultural practices and effective farming techniques, aided by modern technology. Farmers are also taught to be environmentally-conscious in order to produce premium quality rice, maximise their annual rice yields, and achieve better prices. In addition, the farmers were also taught financial literacy to help increase their income and minimise their expenses on the field. 

The result [the 500% increase in income] was achievable through a more stable market access, and capacity building for the farmers in terms of problem-solving as well

Soun Leng, agricultural deputy leader in Raingkesei Agricultural Community

In 2017, as a result of their newly collectivised nature, they were also able to secure an annual contract with AMRU rice, one of the Kingdom’s biggest rice millers and an exporter to the European market.

In line with global trends moving towards produce that is better for people and the environment, the community’s AMRU deal also ensured they produce up to 5,000 tonnes of organic rice, bought at a 3% increase on the market price. 

Heavy use of agrochemicals in food industry that could potentially harm the health of both farmers and consumers has led to more initiatives being created to grow the organic farming across Southeast Asia. 

According to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), farmers region-wide have begun to realise the sustainable benefits of organic farming, including maximising their revenue, as well as better food security and health benefits for both producers and consumers.

Stable market access

Asean nations rank highly for organic crops, with IFOAM’s data showing that the Philippines is fifth globally with 165,958 organic producers. As of 2017, the total area of organic agricultural land in Southeast Asia was 0.4% of the total agricultural land in the region, equivalent to almost 6.1 million hectares – a fourteen-fold growth since 2001.

But perhaps the most crucial element of Raingkesei’s AMRU deal is that it helps stabilise their market access, positively contributing to the farmers’ financial standing, said Soun Leng, another agricultural deputy leader in the community. 

“The result [the 500% increase in income] was achievable through a more stable market access, and capacity building for the farmers in terms of problem-solving as well,” he said. 

  • Roeum Socheat with fellow recipients of awards in London. Photo: VSO
  • Farmers from the Raingkesei Agricultural Community. Photo: Thim Rachna

For the Raingkesei community members, having a stable market for their rice lifts one of the many burdens of being a farmer in Cambodia off their shoulders.

But while suggestions of a region-wide rollout inspired by the Raingkesei model would be premature, in Cambodia, home to countless rural communities of farmers facing virtually identical issues to those experienced by the community, they represent a source of very real hope. 

Facing hostile trends – most notably the EU’s safeguard measures placing tariffs in January on the import of Cambodian and Myanmar rice into the 18-member bloc – rice farmers across the Kingdom remain desperate for stability. 

And with VSO’s project ending soon, the Raingkesei community has found such stability, and is now structured and ready to move forward on its own.

Now obtaining the skills needed to respond to constant environmental changes, volatile market conditions, and managing relationships with stakeholders to enable more favourable market leverage, Soun Leng remains cautiously optimistic on the community’s prospects.  

“We still have many more problems to go through,” he said. “But now, this is a good beginning step.”

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