Women entrepreneurs

Female Innovators are Transforming Cambodian Agriculture

Cambodia’s innovative females are tapping into technology to transform the nation’s agricultural sector, while offering heaps of benefits to farmers.
Sok Sothearoth is the founder of social enterprise JUNLEN
Sok Sothearoth is the founder of social enterprise JUNLEN

As one of Cambodia’s main economic pillars, the agricultural sector accounts for 22 percent of the country’s GDP, employing about 3 million people, according to the US Embassy.

However, only 70 percent of the country’s vegetable and fruit demand is produced locally. The rest are imported, mainly from Thailand and Vietnam. Meet some of the women who have found innovation ideas to better develop agriculture and use it in business.

Ruy Reach: recycling food waste using black soldier fly larvae

Based on research, it was found that the use of the black soldier fly (BSF) larvae to decrease the city’s food waste is not only economical and effective but the larvae also serves as high-protein animal feed that can benefit aquaculture, livestock, and poultry. Thus, the name “Ruy Reach”, which means “King of Flies” in Khmer.

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Ruy Reach
Ruy Reach

Hul Hunsopheary, Ruy Reach co-founder, hails from Takeo province and graduated from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, majoring in physics. She dedicated three years working as an engineer in the energy sector after graduating. Her passion to learn new things led her to become an entrepreneur. She believes in innovation and continuous learning.

Hunsopheary found herself interested in community work and enrolled on every entrepreneur course she could find, while also joining many environmental programs.

In July 2019, she joined a group of American students to conduct research. They soon started to realize that among solid waste such as plastic bags and bottles that can be recycled, was forgotten food waste that is also harmful to the environment.

Hul Hunsopheary, a co-founder of Ruy Reach
Hul Hunsopheary, a co-founder of Ruy Reach

“The idea of Ruy Reach is primarily to process food and organic waste. Secondly, we provide worms that can replace fish powder for feeding animals. It is firstly of good quality and more sustainable than fish powder. Another benefit is creating fertilizer from the worm feces.”

Little fish are noted to be the most vulnerable creatures in water resources. They are overfished to provide food for human consumption as well to create fish powder or animal feed.

Therefore, she and her team had to find ways to create animal feed without using small fish. Instead, they use BSF. Also called Hermetia illucens, it is a member of the Stratioimyidae family in the Diptera order (Diptera is taken from the Greek “di” which means two, and “ptera” meaning wings).

BSF started to gain popularity due to its multiple benefits. It has the ability to transform waste into high-quality protein and make breeding areas of houseflies less desirable. BSF are believed to be the most beneficial flies in existence and are considered a non-pest. They are best in terms of manure and waste management, warding off other flies and their larvae converts waste nutrients into 42 percent protein and 35 percent healthy fats that are used to feed animals, such as chicken, pigs and fish.

According to UNDP Cambodia, more than 90 percent of all waste found consists of recyclable materials (e.g. organic 55 percent, plastic 21 percent and textiles 13 percent).

Sustainable Development Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns, contains a wide range of targets, one of which is closely related to Think.Eat.Save. SDG Target 12.3 seeks to halve global food waste at retail and consumer levels, as well as reduce food loss during production and supply. In order to measure food waste and losses, two indices have been proposed: a Food Waste Index (FWI) and a Food Loss Index (FLI).

As a financially independent woman, Hunsopheary said after she quit her job as an engineer to become a full-time women entrepreneur, she faced challenges from the start of launching her business in agricultural innovation. However, she still believes in her goal in the long run and hopes to motivate other women to follow their dreams.

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“To those who know what they love to do, especially in agriculture, in the future the agricultural sector will expand its potential, not only technology.”

She added, “In general, all things for the first step to start up consists of many obstacles. Even though we believe we have many talents, without trying those talents might be buried unexpectedly. If there is anyone interrupting what you are trying to achieve, please don’t stop. I believe women have many talents to do better in this field.”

JUNLEN: sustainable farming using earthworms

Sok Sothearoth is the founder of social enterprise JUNLEN, a waste management solution offering an efficient way to recycle organic wastes into nutritious, high-quality compost by raising earthworms to vermicomposting. This is the first time this innovative concept has been introduced to Cambodia.

“We also have the mission to provide training for farmers and invest with those who have creative ideas, or we can say innovative farmers, including making contracts with them,” she said.

Sothearoth added that she has spent between six months to one year to encourage farmers to adapt to the technique used to produce the vermicomposting. Currently, there are about 10 farmers’ families that work with JUNLEN.

Sothearoth explained how JUNLEN has brought Khmer farmers together. “We adapt only one farmer, then we expand to more because when it is able to attract one farmer, they earn more income and other farmers become interested too.”

She added that around 10 tons of vermicomposting are produced as a maximum annually by JUNLEN members.

Earthworm fertilizer is recognized as a natural fertilizer that is packed with nutrients and has the ability to relieve soil moisture, provide nutrients to the soil, does not harm the environment, increase biodiversity in soil, enrich microorganism in soil, enzymes treat plant diseases and boost plant growth.

JUNLEN started in early 2018 in Kampong Chhnang province (Khmer-Muslim community of farmers) by cooperating with one farmer called Ly to raise earthworms and produce vermicomposting. Since then, it has provided technical skills and materials as well as market networking to help smallholder farmers find better supplemental incomes to support their family and children’s education.

The 26-year-old said she found the idea for JUNLEN while researching what techniques are useful for small-scale farming.

After googling on the internet, she discovered the precious benefits of earthworms. After that, she decided to raise earthworms by herself and started a small investment with one farmer. She later expanded her training of raising earthworms to other farmers.

Hailing from a middle-income family, Sothearoth said she learned from her family to be independent and self-reliant. In Grade 10, she started to do self-exploration by enrolling in community works to find her true passion. She chose to study Agriculture as a major with the aim of assisting her community. Eventually, her hard work led to her founding JUNLEN.

“People who realize what they truly love, just do it. Don’t overthink about the demand of the family or the demand of society. The important thing is to be honest with yourself, what you really want, what you are really passionate about and what your real talent is.”

According to FAO statistics, Cambodia’s total fertilizer use increased from 38,693 tons in 2005 to 134,053 in 2018. Cambodia imports 100 percent of its fertilizer. Fertilizer use per hectare of cropland increased from 10 kg in 2005 to 33 kg in 2018.

Besides chemical fertilizers, organic fertilizers (such as manure, mulch, and compost) are also used. Cambodia increased imports of fertilizers from about 850,000 tons in 2016 to 1,149,615 tons in 2019.

Kokopon: online agricultural products

Neng Sokneang, 30, is a coder and founder of the Kokopon app, an electronic agricultural products platform.

Sokneang earned a degree in Computer Science from the Royal University of Phnom Penh and is pursuing her scholarship to learn to code at HRE center.

Neng Sokneang of Kokopon
Neng Sokneang of Kokopon

She has converted the lifestyle digital platform, where Cambodian youngsters can find luxurious entertainment places and discounts, into an app geared towards helping farmers survive during restrictions on the physical buying and selling of agricultural products. It also helps female farmers run their business more widely to sell internationally at their original price, including organic vegetables and fruits, and many locally-sourced agricultural products.

“First of all, previously Kokopon was a digital platform to connect young people to lifestyles like sky bars and promotions, but due to the side effects of Covid-19, we noticed Khmer farmers faced many difficult hurdles in selling their products to customers.

“Therefore, in early 2020, we decided to follow the request of our clients and partners to sell domestic products to ensure citizens have food to eat and help promote national products.” said Sokneang.

Since starting, the Kokopon app has assisted farmers to sell their agricultural products to other countries, including Italy, Dubai, Europe, USA and Japan. Products purchased through the app include dried mango, cashew nuts, pepper and cricket powder.

Sokneang described how technological apps provide benefits in many ways, especially for Cambodian farmers.

“Firstly, it can save the time for both purchasers and retailers by keeping in touch with each other anytime on this electronic market. Secondly, cutting down immigration by helping to promote and use national products. It means helping national farmers gain more income to raise their children and support their children in education by letting them go to school. Moreover, the women or crippled women can find work to do from home to support their family.”

Kokopon team
Kokopon team

Sokneang added that beside these, creating a home-grown electronic app is the pride of Cambodia. Furthermore, being a female in technology has shown the capability of women to be involved in this field.

“I want all Cambodian women to know how to get opportunities for themselves. Sometimes she sacrifices a lot for her family; she had her dream, but she was willing to let it go because she was busy and thought her dreams were not important.”

Sokneang wants to motivate more women to be involved in technology as she believes the sector is a place where both males and females can be equal. She wants to see more female students study technology more, especially those who graduated from high school this year.