Agri-tech: The Future of Farming in Cambodia

Agri-tech isn’t just a buzzword, it’s the future of farming. While Cambodia’s farmers are starting to embrace technology, hurdles remain for the sector to fully tap into its potential
Students prepare to fly drones at Technical and Vocational Education and Training Day (TVET Day), in Koh Pich June 15, 2022. Kiripost/Penh Chamroeun
Students prepare to fly drones at Technical and Vocational Education and Training Day (TVET Day), in Koh Pich June 15, 2022. Kiripost/Penh Chamroeun

The adoption of technology is becoming increasingly important in many sectors, and farming is no different. However, transforming Cambodia’s agricultural landscape into a tech-savvy industry comes coupled with challenges.

Toffer Briones, director for entrepreneurship and innovation at Impact Hub Phnom Penh, noted a rise in agri-tech startups in Cambodia that sits in line with other nations worldwide. However, challenges unique to the Kingdom have to be overcome for the sector to reach its full potential.

“There are a lot more startups focusing on agriculture now than 10 years ago,” he said. “Education has improved and we’re seeing a younger, more tech-savvy generation wanting to go back to their farmer parents and help them out.”

Toffer said that the fundamentals of a farm can be broken down into three areas: land, crops and labor.

“Land will always be there. The need for food will always be there, so we will always need crops. What really changes is the labor. If you look at smart labor and automation, this makes farming cheaper and more efficient,” he added. “Cambodian farming will get there. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

Toffer said accelerator factors for tech adoption in Cambodian farming include the rise in education and a tech-oriented generation, coupled with high young population density in comparison to the rest of the world.

However, he added that a major hurdle is supply. “Supply can only be managed once policies catch up and there is more funding,” Toffer said, estimating it will take about 15 years for smart farming and agri-tech to really take off in Cambodia.

Hurdles of agri-tech adoption

Toffer said to understand the adoption of agri-tech, it is key to “zoom out” and review the agricultural sector in the country. While many technologies being developed in Cambodia have existed for a long time, the challenge of adoption is mainly due to economic and literacy restraints.

He cited a recent example of mango farming, where one farmer reaped success from growing mangoes. Nearby farmers also started growing the fruit, leading to oversaturation in the market. This drove prices down, forcing farmers to either throw away excess fruit or sell it at lower prices to illegal buyers in Vietnam and Thailand.

“What happens is farmers make little money and their only option is to go to a microlending institution and get into a cycle of debt. Then they feel these crops aren’t working so they cut them down and that makes the soil bad for the harvest of new crops they plant, plus they’re now in debt financially and it gets harder to keep up. This is the overall state of agriculture in Cambodia,” Toffer noted.

He added poor tax policies and incentives for export further exacerbate the issue, along with the expense of importing equipment and poor infrastructure. “Not having roads, for example, becomes a huge difficulty for a lot of farmers,” Toffer said. “Then you put technology on top of that and it makes adoption very hard.”

In addition, many farmers are used to using traditional farming techniques that have been used for generations.

“Their fathers were farmers and their grandfathers were farmers, so they’ve been used to a way of farming that maybe uses pesticides, certain techniques and no crop rotation. That makes it hard for them to even think about using technologies, and sometimes they don’t have education or literacy to be able to do that.”

Accelerating agri-tech

In 2022, Impact Hub launched the SAAMBAT Digital Accelerator programme, in partnership with the Ministry of Rural Development and Ministry of Economy and Finance, to support agri-tech entrepreneurs to strengthen their minimum viable product, gain customer validation, and accelerate their path to viability through a technology-oriented curriculum.

Four start-ups were selected and, as well as mentoring and training, received their share of $200,000. A second cohort of the six-month program is slated to start soon. SAAMBAT forms part of a wider initiative by the government to elevate Cambodia’s agriculture sector.

“The idea is to help with the rural development of agriculture and surrounding policies and infrastructure. For the agri-tech aspect, we come in to help develop ecosystem players in the value chain,” Toffer said, citing examples of renewable energy-powered hydro pumps and water irrigation systems to marketplace e-commerce platforms that enable farmers to sell their produce.

He added that many of the applications came from children of farmers who aimed to solve issues their families face using technology. For example, one woman’s parents are cashew farmers who struggled to maximize their yield returns despite producing a lot. She decided to add processing facilities to the farm to produce cashew milk enabling them to boost their income.

“Many are the sons and daughters of farmers and see where they can help. The younger generation want to go back to their farmer parents and help them,” said Toffer.

Making farming sustainable

Toffer said that for Cambodia to be viable in agriculture, elevating the industry as a whole to export level is key. “What we see is that only those who get to export quality level can be sustainable and scale their business,” he said.

Toffer noted that the domestic market is small and competes with cheaper goods from neighboring countries. “Ironically, a lot of ingredients come from Cambodia and are shipped to Thailand and Vietnam, where they are processed and repackaged and then sent back here. When they are shipped back to Cambodia, they’re cheaper because of the scale.”

This means that Vietnam and Thailand are selling Cambodian products at lower prices than they cost in the country. This is due to these nations exporting worldwide at a large scale, driving down prices when it comes to processing and packaging that Cambodia is unable to compete with.

“Until we get over that hurdle from an export trade perspective, it’s very hard to make it viable down the value chain and it’s hard for small producers to keep up. It’s a chicken and egg problem where they don’t have the money, but to get money from investors, investors want to see traction. Someone has to break that cycle and you need financial incentives to do that,” Toffer said.

He added that while the government has been investing in various platforms and incentives to grow the sector, it will take some years for farmers to reap any rewards and see any relevant traction.

The future of farming

“If I scan globally, agriculture will be impacted by technology regardless of where we are,” said Toffer. “What it really changes is the labor.”

This is where smart labor comes in, with automation making farming cheaper and more efficient. Toffer predicts that the next phase of Cambodian farming will see robotics and data analysis introduced.

He pointed to a large plantation that uses drone technology to check the health of the trees. “Rather than scanning them one-by-one, which is impossible to manage manually if you have acres and acres of land, farmers can start to make use of technology. It’s just a matter of time before it becomes standard.”

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