As food prices rise, Oxfam programs help decrease worry

By Katie Taft
Horng Vary, Van Sou Cheun, and Van Sou Korn use Saving for Change in their village in Cambodia to battle the rising costs of food.

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In Kork Village, about 87 miles north of Phnom Penh and close to the border of Tonle Sap Lake—the largest lake in Cambodia—three women sit talking with each other under one of their traditional Cambodian houses that stands on stilts. To the passerby, these women look like ordinary Cambodian women taking a break from the mid-day heat, gossiping about their neighbors or talking of their children's future.

But if the passerby stopped to listen to the conversation, she would know that this is no ordinary gossip session.

"I need to find a better way to show off my natural vegetables next to the others in the market," says Horng Vary, a 51-year-old farmer and mother. "They might not look as good, but I know they taste better. How do you do it?"

Her friend and neighbor. Van Sou Cheun, 52, tells her to show only the best ones and then when people come to buy tell them about the taste.

"I think it is best to tell them, not show them," Van Sou Korn, 54, says agreeing with Cheun.

This very simple act of exchanging information on ways to better market their products is at the heart of an Oxfam America initiative designed to allow farmers to pool their savings and take charge of their futures. Called Saving for Change, the program allows members in rural communities to save, lend, and pay each other interest while also encouraging them to share new farming and livelihoods ideas with each other. In the process, small farmers like these three women will become better equipped to battle the rising costs that recently hit the world, and Cambodia.

Struggling to eat

A recent survey done by an Oxfam partner shows that in Cambodia, 2.6 million people are facing food insecurity with the poorest people struggling to deal with rising food prices. More specifically, the survey suggests that villages like Kork around the Tonle Sap Lake will be the hardest hit.

Cambodians spend as much as 70 percent of their income on food, as compared to the US where people spend about 10 percent. This means that to cope with the soaring food prices, people are buying and eating less food—adding to existing malnutrition among people and the country's poor economic outlook.

Unlike some African countries that do not grow enough food to feed their people, Cambodia has produced a surplus of food in the past few years—including its staple rice. But rice is now a 100 percent more expensive than it was last year, making it pricey for the poorest 40 percent of the population. The causes of the increased prices are varied—climate change, rising fertilizer costs, insect infestations, and uninformed trade—but the outcomes are the same: instability and insecurity for the poorest families.

But with 80 percent of the people in Cambodia making a living from agriculture, it would seem that higher prices offer the possibility of a better livelihood for farmers. Unfortunately this isn't the case since small-scale farmers individually have little bargaining power in terms of selling their produce or buying things like seeds and fertilizer.

This is where three women working together and sharing information could change the balance of power.

A new balance

Oxfam America has taken strides in building human connections in East Asia through Saving for Change. The microfinance program has jumpstarted trust and knowledge sharing in rural areas because it allows communities to be in charge of their own futures and promotes the need for them to work together in order to reach individual goals.

All three women are a part of a Saving for Change program and through it have learned of another Oxfam America program: System of Rice Intensification, or SRI. A process of 12 low-cost, simple practices, SRI helps small farmers increase their yields of rice by 50 to 100 percent while allowing them save on seed and water costs.

They are now SRI farmers.

"When I first heard about this way to grow rice I didn't believe it," Vary says. "But when I saw my neighbors growing more rice, I took a small part of my land and tried it. I have had three harvests, each one producing more rice than the one before."

This is especially important now. The survey results show that many rice farmers are facing a 70 percent increase in production costs, so growing more rice while saving on water and seeds can make a big difference.

"Everything is more expensive now," Vary says. "But at least we have more rice than some of our neighbors."

Staying competitive

The Saving for Change program requires that group members formally meet each month to go over financial transactions in the community. That meeting also gives them the chance to talk about other issues such as their agricultural practices or selling tactics.

"When one of us goes to another market in another village, we bring back a list of prices to share with the group," Vary says. "It keeps us competitive."

The three women find time each week to talk about how their SRI fields are doing and share practices and experiments with the methodology. They all agree that sharing information on how to grow more rice or how to better sell their products will help them manage during this time of soaring costs.

"It is important for us to do this now because of the prices," Vary says. "We are not worried, though, because we have each other. We feel supported."