Beyond Rice in Cambodia

Project Alba is partnering with small farmers to grow high-value vegetables that meet growing demand — and transforming their lives in the process.

From the fishing villages lining the Gulf of Thailand to the lush Elephant Mountains, Kampot Province, located on Cambodia’s southwest coast, teems with life.

While tourism and other industries provide irregular income, agricultural has long been the province’s lifeblood. Like most of Cambodia — where 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas and 73 percent depend on agriculture — small farmers grow the vast majority of crops. And, almost all of them grow the same thing: rice.

We really struggled to sell our produce.

Because all of them are growing rice, prices stay low, and farmers earn very little from their crops. Meanwhile, other crops — especially healthy vegetables that contain no chemicals — are in high demand. But, farmers often lack to the tools and knowledge to cultivate them. This inability to diversify their crops can trap families in a cycle of poverty.

Some families are forced to abandon their lands in search of other work. Mothers and fathers can end up in Cambodia’s urban garment factories, where they often labor in challenging conditions — if they’re able to find work at all.

Farmers Hao Bein, 34, and his wife Eang Srey Nheb, 28, live on a small farm in Kampot province along with their ten-year-old daughter. The couple attempted to diversify and grow some vegetables — but the varieties would frequently fail. And when they did grow, Hao and Eang weren’t able to get the produce to market.

“We really struggled to sell our produce,” Nheb recalled. “And when we did, we would often get low prices.”

Hao Bein and Eang Srey Nheb stand with their daughter.

That all changed in November 2016, when the young couple began working with Project Alba — a social enterprise that partners with farmers to diversify their crops and increase their income.

Project Alba uses an innovative approach that allows farmers to quickly increase their income while producing more sustainable and diverse varieties of crops. Project Alba’s agricultural field workers give farmers seeds for fast-cycle crops that are in high demand — everything from mustard greens to cucumbers and tomatoes. They work with farmers to install new irrigation systems and provide expertise for growing the new crops. And crucially, they commit to purchasing the yields in advance, reselling the farmers’ produce to regional wholesalers who can get the food to market.

With Project Alba’s help, Hao and Eang have begun growing mustard greens and romaine lettuce — both high in nutrition, as well as value — in addition to their rice. The couple saw results immediately. “I have also been able to learn new techniques that we didn’t know about,” said Hao. “We have much better crops now.”

Hao and Eang tend to the new crops in their field. Because of their partnership with Project Alba, they’re guaranteed a fair price for everything they produce.

Because of Project Alba’s connections to wholesalers, the couple can now count on fair prices for their vegetables. The partnership, they say, has “made it much easier to sell our vegetables” and brought the entire family a new sense of security.

According to Michelle Lowery, the Partnerships and Communications Manager at Project Alba, farmers often double and sometimes triple their income.

“We have managed to improve our income — before, we were mostly transplanting by season and would earn between $250 to $500, but we had some difficult seasons,” Eang attests. “We’re now earning $250 to $350 every six weeks.”

The regular income from a diversified crops is just as important as the amount. Freed from the volatility of rice yields and empowered by the tools to grow high-value vegetable varieties, the family can afford to look to the future.

“A regular income helps me to buy more food and to keep my daughter in school,” says Hao. “She wants to be a teacher when she grows up.”

“I would like her to be a teacher, too,” he added.

USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the Government of South Africa, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands provide this innovator with funding and technical assistance.