The Best Farmers Are Successful Entrepreneurs

Project Alba has found a cost-effective way to coach Cambodian farmers on the managerial skills they need to thrive in a changing market.

Farming is a key industry in Cambodia, but unfortunately this past year was difficult for farmers. Heavy rains and flooding resulted in smaller harvests, overwhelmed drainage systems, and failed crops for many. Even farmers with a decade of experience struggled.

Many are starting to realize that in today’s Cambodia, it takes more than technical skills to survive and thrive. Farmers need to have expertise managing their finances, assessing risk, managing people and other labor costs, and understanding the market. You can’t just be a good farmer; you have to be a good entrepreneur.

In this kind of environment, how does an organization like Project Alba, a for-profit social enterprise working with low-income, small share farmers, help farmers grow and succeed?

“All solutions need to be motivated by the market and understanding the larger reality,” says Guillaume Virag, CEO and co-founder of Project Alba. “The reality is that you have to tailor your approach based on what is needed. One solution doesn’t work for the farmer who just started their career six months ago, and the farmer with years of experience, and the farmer who is looking to change careers in three years.”

Project Alba’s approach is unique because the company looks for the most efficient and cost effective ways to invest in farmers to get the biggest impact. The organization builds relationships with farmers to determine how best to invest — looking not just at technical skills, but other entrepreneurial skills that might be needed — and balance that customization with broader trainings that work at-scale.

For example, Project Alba leads larger trainings to help groups of farmers understand the benefits of diversifying crops. They’ll give farmers seeds for fast-cycle crops that are in high demand, such as mustard greens, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Then, Project Alba will commit to buying the harvested crops, helping to ease the risk to farmers and reselling the produce to regional wholesalers. Importantly, they use trainings as opportunities to build connections with individual farmers who show potential for long-term growth.

Determining potential is key. “The economy in Cambodia is rapidly changing, and has been for the past five years,” says Guillaume. “The landscape of farming has become more competitive. Many farmers are leaving for other industries. We want to support the farmers who are in it for the long haul. We aim to help them weather the risks and challenges of farming in this new environment.”

All solutions need to be motivated by the market and understanding the larger reality.

Based on their relationships with farmers, Project Alba’s team can more accurately identify the priorities and the solutions that will have the highest impact on the farmers’ income and life. Some may need assistance on the technical aspects of farming, such as installing and running irrigation systems or understanding fertilizer application. Others may need managerial skills, like hiring field laborers, or information on starting a savings account to weather future bad seasons and avoid debt — the greatest risk to small farms. Some farmers face psychological stress after hard seasons and 10-hour days in the field, and Project Alba connects them with other farmers to build relationships that keep people motivated through hard times.

This customized approach can have a higher-cost, but because the investments are more carefully chosen, the benefits are well worth it. Project Alba is especially well-suited to assess these investments, given their in-depth knowledge of the market and best practices. This knowledge comes from working with thousands of farmers and from experience in their own farms, where they test ideas and learn from mistakes. This expertise helps them identify problems and solutions quickly, helping to reduce costs.

And the benefits are already clear. This past year’s rain and floods hurt many Cambodian farmers, but those coached by Project Alba on land management and crop diversity were less heavily impacted by the rains — even if they had less experience and technical skill.

“There was one farmer we visited, and you could tell by the state of his fields that he had little experience. There were weeds everywhere!” recalls Guillaume. “But his income was amazing! He made $400 per month, which is high in Cambodia. And it was because he took risks. He had a larger plot of land and grew potatoes, which are very difficult to grow in this region. The crop yield was small, but he sold them at a high cost. He grew four different crops and managed his staff well, and this all paid off. …Farmers with stronger technical skills, but who didn’t have the [managerial skills] were impacted heavily by the rains.”

Project Alba’s smart approach to investing and setting priorities is helping farmers in Cambodia become successful entrepreneurs. Together, they can grow the skills that will help them weather any storm.