Monday, 3 July 2017

Work starts on Diversifying diets and crops in Cambodia

Laying the foundations for effective team work:
Diversifying diets and crops in Cambodia

 ACIAR has now started a five-year project to improve productivity and livelihood security for farmers in Cambodia’s north-western provinces of Banteay Meanchey, Battambong and Pursat, which together produce 27% of the country’s wet season rice.

These projects take a lot of planning and organisation before the research can begin. At the end of last year a three-day workshop was held in Phnom Penh to plan the Sustainable Intensification and Diversification in NW Cambodia project (CSE/2015/044).

Cambodia is one of the world’s leading exporters of rice, a common but low value crop, but farmers need to diversify and grow more profitable foods.

Dr John Dixon, ACIAR’s Principal Advisor for the Cropping Systems and Economics program, said: ‘We wish to diversify the diet—and the way to do that is to diversify farming.

After the rice crop, farmers could use irrigation water available or soil moisture to grow another crop such as oil seed or vegetables.  Smallholders are very keen on fish ponds, while ACIAR anticipates introducing some animal enterprises in another 10 to 15 years.

‘We’d like to work with farmers to identify viable diversification options that are higher value crops or livestock than rice,’ Dr Dixon said.  ‘That will help to lift them out of the long-term poverty trap.’

Last year’s ‘crisis’ showed that growing only rice is unsustainable.  Farmers were left with a surplus which they had to sell at lower prices or which rice mills refused to buy.  Prices plummeted from US$250 per ton in August to US$193 in September, and the government was forced to bail out the farmers with a US$27 million grant.

Heavy clay soil makes it difficult to grow crops other than rice, but even growing rice is difficult.  While the south-east has tractors and rice harvesting machines, the north-west, where the project will be based, is less mechanised.

To make matters worse, neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam and Burma’s rice industries are more competitive, while Cambodian farmers and small businesses aren’t currently entrepreneurial.

Three interdependent and integrated planning workshops were held, to get the project started - one a day.  The foresight workshop on Day 1 identified the trends and scenarios that underlined why diversification is as important as intensification—and the importance of sustaining soils, water, farm and business profits and local social systems.   

Dr Dixon said: ‘This was an excellent exercise, because the participants – the project members and related stakeholders – began to think about what the future situation would be.’

The stakeholder engagement workshop on Day 2 explored potential interactions between the ACIAR project and the ongoing work of stakeholders in Cambodia, including various Government agencies, local Universities, local companies (SM-Waypoint), IRRI, the DFAT supported CAVAC and the IFAD supported ASPIRE.

The inception workshop on Day 3 planned the project’s strategy for its first 12 months.  This includes surveying smallholders and businessmen, participatory appraisals, household surveys, establishing hubs of farmers who will collaborate with the project, and training farmers and linking them to the market.

‘The workshops were very successful,’ Dr Dixon said.  ‘It piloted an innovation in terms of inception workshops.’

ACIAR’s regional manager Dulce Simmanivong commented that the workshops were a great way to initiate relationships with stakeholders, some of whom are likely to become collaborators with the project during implementation.  She believed this model should be tested in other ACIAR projects.  The workshops also developed a common understanding among project staff and partners about the context and focus of the required research.

There is a lot of work behind the scenes before an ACIAR project can start trialling new agriculture methods in a partner country, but the preparation for this project is bound to pay off, with targetted research plans.

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