Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Engaging Civil Society for Horticulture Income Growth in Cambodia

As discussed in the first installment of this series, Fintrac identified three primary constraints in Cambodia’s fresh vegetable value chain: limited volumes, seasonal production, and inadequate input supply & services. Now we’ll discuss how we addressed these challenges through community-level civil society. 

Civil society is diverse in form as well as function, and no single model is a panacea for development. Commercially oriented producer groups are one important component of a robust civil society – and can play a key role in facilitating farmer income growth. However, in Cambodia, the brutal history of the Khmer Rouge created an environment of interpersonal distrust, which often limits collective action. 

Despite an often unspoken reluctance to engage collectively, we found that if farmers are organized loosely and informally around a shared economic interest, groups can be an efficient means to reduce transaction costs and increase access to knowledge, and markets. 

Group formalization was unnecessary in domestic marketing channels—and could have even inhibited farmer success given increased operating costs, external pressure for structured cooperation, and managerial burdens where capacity is limited. 

To address the limited supply of domestically produced vegetables, the transfer of market-driven agronomic skills proved to be a foundation for smallholder success. Farmers needed to learn what to produce, when to produce it, how to produce it, and how to achieve the consistent quality that domestic buyers demand. 

But since production of fresh vegetables at the smallholder level was relatively non-existent prior to the Cambodia HARVEST program, developing the necessary skills could not have been achieved simply through one-off trainings. Instead, farmer groups benefited from intensive demonstration-based training from local agronomists for up to four production cycles. 

Extension efforts were focused on the application of good agricultural practices (GAPs) and the introduction of modern, yet simple technologies such as plastic mulch, hybrid seeds, seedling trays, and low-cost drip irrigation to increase yields and enable year-round production. 

New output market relationships fostered incentives farmers needed to increase their labor and capital investments in vegetable production. To this end, local marketing specialists facilitated buyer linkages along key domestic trade corridors where clusters of producer groups could provide the necessary volumes to attract buyers. These relationships were then sustained as producer groups organized planting decisions and managed logistics with buyers independently. 

To improve support services available to smallholders, we simultaneously worked with rural input dealers to build customer focused businesses. This included improving inventory management of products smallholders demanded, and strengthening embedded service offerings such as on-site product demonstration trainings, and equipment installation for drip systems. 

And while each producer group chose to operate a bit differently based on their own dynamics, many groups were able to reduce the unit costs of their inputs by organizing bulk input purchases with local agro-dealers.  

Additionally, several groups were able to access working capital loans from local microfinance institutions through peer guarantee structures. This was partly made possible through training in farm administration where group members learned how to record cash flows to meet lender requirements. Access to capital then increased their demand for modern inputs, creating feedback loops of investment between farmers and input suppliers. 

In Cambodia, there were a few characteristics of these groups that we found to be integral to the success achieved by individual members: 

  1. Groups are narrowly focused on the production and marketing of fresh vegetables. 
  2. Membership is determined by self-selection, and each group is made up of just 12-15 farmers.
  3. Hierarchy is limited, with unpaid volunteer president and marketing roles elected by members.
  4. Groups have autonomy to decide which activities they will perform collectively vs. individually.

Despite the importance of producer groups as a vehicle, they were not in and of themselves the goal. The impact of our producer group strategy is probably best articulated in terms of performance at the individual farmer, input market, and output market levels. Here are a few of the positive results to date: 

  • Adoption rate of GAPs and promoted technologies is 85 percent. 
  • Approximately 50 percent of farmers are now producing vegetables in the dry season. 
  • Vegetable yield increases are 300 percent above baseline on average.
  • 80 percent of input providers are seeing increased retail competition in rural areas responding to increased farmer demand. 
  • Output market linkages have resulted in 3,500 MT worth $1.1 million of incremental on-far, sales. 
  • Farmer income increased by 420 percent on average and ranged from 90 percent to 625 percent for target crops. 

In the next installment of this blog series, we will discuss how Cambodia HARVEST measures these results.  

This post was written by Adam Keatts. Adam is the Agriculture Knowledge Manager for US-based firm Fintrac Inc, the implementer of Cambodia HARVEST. This a five-year integrated food security and climate change program funded by USAID that reduces poverty and malnutrition by diversifying and increasing food production. The program has benefited nearly 100,000 rural households since it began in 2011 by providing technical assistance and training, and linking smallholder farmers to reliable markets. Please direct questions to info@fintrac.com.