After achieving rice self-sufficiency in the 1990s, Cambodia strives to be a global rice producer.
As the global food plate continues to demand more rice, more rice-producing countries, including Cambodia, are setting their sights in becoming major players in the market. The country aims to export 1 million tons of milled rice per year, which means ramping up several initiatives to increase its rice competitiveness. The Government of Cambodia invested in developing a portfolio of strategies aimed at helping them reach 50% of their target. These include addressing labor shortage in rice production through mechanization, improving infrastructures, and providing interventions to improve its postharvest systems.
“But there’s still a lot more work to do,” says Dr. Meas Pyseth from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. “We could not optimally reach our target because there is no market for Cambodia rice. Farmers largely depend on traders buying and processing their paddy in Vietnam instead of processing their own, which makes our rice value chain weak.”
To tackle this problem, farm machinery, like two-wheel tractors and combine harvesters, were rapidly introduced to the rice landscapes. But the anticipated impact of mechanization was encumbered by the lack of value chain support services.
“Farmers are keen innovators. But without a clear understanding of these machines and how to operate and troubleshoot them, they cannot be optimally used,” shares Lor Lytour, dean of the Faculty of Agricultural Engineering at the Royal University of Agriculture, a leading public agricultural university based in Phnom Penh. “Aside from these, the farmers who can afford to buy the machines do not have the mechanisms to recover its cost. Cambodia also lacks agricultural engineers who can adapt existing technologies to local conditions and skilled agricultural machinery mechanics who can provide repair and maintenance services.”
Building capacity of future agricultural engineers
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is a strong partner of Cambodia in looking for solutions to optimize rice productivity through mechanization and improved postharvest. In 2013, IRRI appointed Gerald Hitzler, IRRI-Centre for International Migration and Development expert, to lay the groundwork for developing initiatives to improve the country’s capacity to strengthen its rice value chain support services.
Mr. Hitzler works with the Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) to revitalize its Agricultural Engineering curriculum. Formerly known as Agricultural Technology and Management, the program focused on technologies in general and lacked courses that will improve the operational skills and business component of the technologies.
“The new Agricultural Engineering curriculum emphasizes on the technical aspects of mechanization,” Dr. Lytour says. “Recently, we’ve been teaching business management skills so our graduates will have the chance to become entrepreneurs in the future. Gerald was on top of this to make it possible.”
Mr. Hitzler also collaborates with the Department of Agricultural Machinery (DAM) and took the initiative to send some senior students to assess technologies developed by the institute. Some of them chose the improvement of machinery for their thesis topic.
Kroesna, a senior agricultural engineering student at RUA, is one of those students. She elected to work on improving the seed cleaner developed by DAM for her thesis.
“I like the practical teaching approach,” Kroesna shares her experience studying under the new program. “We were taught how to drive a tractor and repair machines. I’m very interested in machinery, so I find it fun to spend time in the workshop repairing machines, welding, and troubleshooting. I can even make my own machines in the future.”
“This helps the department’s efforts to improve the country’s postharvest and mechanization activities,” Dr. Lytour says. “We also engage in discussions how to improve other machinery. I wish he will continue to help us more in our research and development efforts to help improve the rice mechanization in Cambodia.”
Fostering synergies among different actors
IRRI, through Mr. Hitzler’s active involvement, also works with other partners such as the Don Bosco Agricultural Vocational School (DBAVS) in Battambang Province.
“Gerald has been helpful in providing opportunities for our students to have hands-on experience on operating and maintaining machines,” says Walter Zwick, a senior expert service consultant at DBAVS. “We have been sending our students to different institutions such as CLAAS Harvest Center and Agricultural Systems Research-Cambodia in Battambang as interns to get hands-on training in tractor repair and other jobs that can’t be done in DBAVS’s workshop.”
Mr. Hitzler also fostered a great and informal partnership with the French Agricultural Research Center (Cirad) and DBAVS.
“We hosted about 10 students from the DBAVS to work on field operations in our project sites,” says Florent Tivet, a scientist at Cirad. “It was good for us, and good for them because they can learn much from field operations. At the same time, the students get hands-on experience in maintaining and fixing agricultural machines. We also borrow the equipment they have at DBAVS, such as a straw baling machine. Without this great partnership, we won’t have this kind of synergy.”
A Business Management module is also being considered by DBAVS to reinforce the knowledge and skills and of students who want to run their own business someday.
Recently, an IRRI-led rice straw management project, launched in 2015, introduced the rice straw baler to help solve the country’s increasing problem in handling rice straw after harvesting. The project held demonstrations of straw baling in Battambang Province. The project is also expanding its activities to Svey Rieng. Baling machines entered that province from Vietnam where they made an impression.
“Rapid adoption of rice straw baler is slowly reaching neighboring provinces,” says Mr. Hitzler. “Because farmers can now efficiently collect rice straw, the cattle raising at Svay Rieng has increased by 20%.”
He is scheduled to train farmers and government agriculture staff on the operation, maintenance, and repair of balers and other machines. “This way, we can improve the efficiency of providing after-sales service to ensure sustained use of equipment.”
The rise of RICE in Cambodia
There are more things to do to help Cambodia meet its rice production goals. But, more importantly, the country now has the means to accomplish them.
With the inception of the Rice agri-food Systems CGIAR Research Program or RICE, IRRI and its partners will continue working together towards strengthening the rice value chain services under the Flagship Project 2 (Upgrading rice value chains) of RICE. The Flagship Project enables Cambodia to produce rice sustainably and be responsive to market opportunities.
“We look forward to contributing to the improvement of Cambodia’s rice sector by building on what we have started years before,” says Martin Gummert, one of the Flagship Project 2 activity cluster leaders of RICE. “RICE will help continue on our initiatives and do a lot more.”
With IRRI’s continued strong commitment to being a global leader in rice science initiatives and the country’s efforts to ramp up such initiatives, the transformation of Cambodia’s rice industry from a local to a global provider is within its reach.
Ms. Quilloy is a communication and outreach specialist at IRRI.