Cambodia's Digital Journey Shows Signs of Growth

Despite the number of students studying STEM-related subjects remaining relatively low, Cambodia is gaining traction on its digital journey, according to experts at the Digital Economy Forum II
Ancient Khmer statues of Asuras in Siem Reap. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Ancient Khmer statues of Asuras in Siem Reap. Kiripost/Siv Channa

SIEM REAP - The number of students pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) majors in higher education in Cambodia has increased in recent years, but the numbers still remain relatively low.

Students pursuing STEM majors in higher education in 2021-2022 for Bachelors were 27.35 percent, with females making up 24.72 percent. Master degree students were at 15.89 percent, with 22.5 percent female, and Phd students at 6.51 percent, with 29.11 percent female, said Siriwat Chhem, Director of the Centre for Inclusive Digital Economy at Asian Vision Institute (AVI), an independent think tank in Phnom Penh.

Chhem was speaking virtually at the Digital Economy Forum II in Siem Reap this week about digital policy support for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in Cambodia.

“These numbers are still relatively low in terms of STEM majors, but I would like to highlight that when we talk about digital skills, it doesn't always mean, or doesn’t have to imply, technical education,” Chhem said.

He added that nowadays, technical skills are very broad and entail not only science and technology or engineering skills, but also include digital marketing skills and digital sales.

Many aid, scholarships and initiatives by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) are for the overall growth of STEM in general, said Chhem. He added that key statistics show that 28 percent of students have access to computers in higher education.

“This is great, I think especially in rural areas when, maybe, they don't have as much access to mobile devices and the internet. Computer labs at schools and universities are key for young Cambodians to access the internet, to learn online and to really, let's say, improve their overall learning experience, not just from traditional textbooks, slides and lectures.”

Other statistics reveal that 30 percent of the population has basic digital skills, Chhem said, adding that this is quite a subjective definition but overall the point is to show how savvy or adoptive Cambodians are to using and navigating these digital platforms and applications.

Statistics also show that 560 public institutions have internet connection, which is key to improving the overall learning experience for students. The MoEYS has also produced over 6,000 e-learning videos, Chhem said.

The Digital Economy Forum II took place in Siem Reap as pioneers setting the course for the digital economy in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Siem Reap itself is significant in the history of technology - a marvel of hydraulic engineering and water management, a vast and intricate system of reservoirs, canals, and moats that from the 9th to 12th century were the most advanced in the world,” said Christopher McCarthy, CEO of MangoTango Asia, which organized the forum.

McCarthy said at the forum launch that breakthrough technology helped the Khmer Empire to achieve unparalleled heights, assuring a reliable water supply for agriculture, even during prolonged dry seasons.

“Let’s call it a breakthrough in AgTech. This led to a boost in food production and food security, and some of the largest urban populations of the time," he said.

“Today, we ourselves stand at the start of a powerful shift in technology as robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing promise a revolution; a divide between what’s come before and what’s possible tomorrow."

McCarthy added that the gathering in Siem Reap aimed at working out and discussing how people can ensure the best possible future.

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Digital Economy Forum in Siem Reap, August 22, 2023. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Digital Economy Forum in Siem Reap, August 22, 2023. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Social media platforms are on the rise

For Cambodia, social media platforms are on the rise, improving people’s overall daily lives.

A recent report on Cambodia’s digital economy stated Facebook has 11.6 million users, Facebook Messenger 7.85 million, TikTok has been on the rise along with Telegram with 6.68 million users, Instagram has around 2.05 million users, while LinkedIn has about 460,000 users.

The rise of social media platforms are really improving people’s everyday lives and overall efficiency, Chhem of AVI reaffirmed.

Internet subscriptions are around 19 million, 18 million mobile phone subscriptions, and mobile networks have moved from 99.6 percent of 2G, 89 percent of 3G to 91 percent of 4G.

A total of 73.9 percent of the total population are active social media users, which is very high, mainly due to the young demographic of the country, he said. Chhem added that more than two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30, with a median age of around 26 to 27.

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More savvy

Chhem said that there has been a steady rise in e-commerce revenue, especially during Covid-19 pandemic. This is not due to technology becoming more sophisticated, but, overall, it was market education as consumers across the nation became more reliant, independent and more savvy with technological applications.

Chhem said that the top three for e-commerce were electronics, fashion, and beauty, health and personal care, amounting to around $230 million and $260 million.

These are positive signs that e-commerce has brought a lot of value to the economy, Chhem said.

Chhem went on to talk about the importance of established structure in terms of not only the human resources and the capital but also the infrastructure, equipment and overall systems.

He said that the government digital policy is to develop digital infrastructure, build digital governance, create digital public services, develop digital capacity building and innovations and to promote public private partnerships.

In terms of providing public services, overall strengthening public private partnerships, “are quite important,” he said.

“We think from the perspective of MSMEs, it's not only strategic but also important for fostering relations both ways to improve, let's say opportunities and any kind of added value in the economy.”

Online Business Registrations (OBR) for MSMEs and businesses in general, are having an all in one online platform for business registration is extremely important for rapidly developing nation such as Cambodia where over the last two years, OBR, initiated by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, has been crucial onboarding of new businesses through the single portal, he said.

CamDX, a data exchange platform, connects all the relevant ministries which would be usually involved for business registration.

The first step would be to log in with the digital identification which can be created through mobile application, which makes it convenient. Mainly, filling in key information which would be traditionally done through, let's say the Ministry of Commerce, the first step, not only that, we can even make online payment for the registration process.

The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation for SME licensing portal, that supports relevant different sectors are also equally important. Ministry of Tourism, real estate and business and pawship shop regulators

Consistently would be to go through the Department of Taxation, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training.

“So, let’s say as a new business owner or somebody trying to establish a new company, they would, before, they had to go through institutions physically to fill in their information every single time that they went to a new ministry or government agency.”

Bakong, National Bank of Cambodia blockchain infrastructure, has allowed the nation to basically perform digital transactions throughout mobile banking applications seamlessly.

Before, we needed to have, let's say, individual bank accounts from respective commercial banks in Cambodia to make a payment or transfer.

Statistics from last year, it was up around half a million registered accounts, almost 26.1 million transactions and overall in terms of volume of 12.8 trillion riels or around $12 billion.

The NBC has also gone one step further in integrating these blockchain based QR payments into regional countries, a great sign for ASEAN Economic Integration, not only for trade and economic activities in the future but even for consumers as business visit and tourism to allow people to enjoy convenience of all these integrated payment systems.

Through OBR as of May 2023, 24, 888 successful companies registered, 14,798 successful name reservations and $7.44 billion registered shared capital.

The statistics showed overall confidence in using online platforms to register businesses officially with the relevant ministries.

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