Rice growers in Cambodia start a business, and invest in their community.
Ngoy Vorn moved to Pursat province at the end of the Khmer Rouge years, in the early 1980s, when she was a widow raising three children. She survived by growing rice on 1.3 acres of land. It has been a difficult way to make a living because she is always short on water.
“Sometimes, I can’t even get enough water for one harvest,” Vorn, now 62, says. “It just makes me want to give up on farming.”
Water for drinking can also be a problem for her and others in her village, a place called Por Pi. Many of the 146 families here do not have a well, and they get water from streams and ponds. Vorn says it’s not healthy water: “Three or four times a month we had to spend money on health care, for diarrhea and stomach problems.”
To fix this problem, Vorn and about a dozen of her neighbors have started a business to purify, bottle, and sell drinking water. They started it to earn money, but also to help their community. They donate more than 25 percent of their profits to the village in hopes that these resources will someday help solve the water shortage for farming.
This venture emerged from a savings and loan group Oxfam’s partner Srer Khmer (SK) helped initiate among a group of rice farmers it trained. It's part of an effort to help villagers diversify the way they earn money to make them a little less vulnerable to the uncertain rainfall brought on by climate change that can affect even the best rice farmers.
Pure water for the village
The bottling facility sits next to the home of 28-year-old Moul Phally, where she lives with her parents, husband, and young son. It’s a metal building with water tanks, hoses, filters, and other equipment for purifying water.
Phally, a rice farmer who works on this project, says they pump water from the well, remove any sediment, and run it through a charcoal filter and ultraviolet light before bottling it in 20-liter plastic containers they deliver to clients. In a month they can earn between $250 (in the rainy season when there is less demand) to $1,000 (during the winter dry months).
“Now that we have this purified water, not so many people fall ill,” Phally says. “If they want clean water they can just buy it.” She says a 20-liter container costs about $4 and lasts most families at least a day. When the farmers deliver the water, they pick up the old containers and clean them out to use again.
Getting the idea off the ground
Vorn, Phally, and the others who started the water business have all been participating in a variety of projects with Oxfam’s partner SK. First, SK taught them how to grow rice using a method called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) starting in 2009. SRI involves selecting only the highest quality seeds and transplanting individual seedlings at a young age in widely spaced rows (instead of in dense clumps of six or eight plants all together). This allows each plant to get a lot of light and grow stronger roots.
When farmers first hear about this method, they don’t believe it will work. But when they see the larger plants with more rice grains, they learn that planting fewer seeds actually grows more rice.
“Before, I grew about two tons of rice on two hectares (about five acres) of land each year,” says Chreb Phrav, 36, a married mother of two girls. “But after introducing SRI the first year I got 4.4 tons.” Lack of rain since then has kept her below that high yield, but she says “I am so happy with SRI; it makes farming profitable. I save on seed; on one field I used to plant 100 kilos of seed, but now I just plant 15 or 20 kilos.”
Srer Khmer also helped Phrav and about a dozen of her neighbors form a Saving for Change group, which helps farmers save small amounts of money in their own bank, and then borrow modest amounts at a reasonable interest rate.
Group members build up their savings for emergencies, and can invest in raising small livestock like chickens and pigs, and growing vegetables. Diversifying their income helps reduce their vulnerability to drought and floods. Srer Khmer and other Oxfam partners are working with 5,250 farmers in three provinces on this initiative; 75 percent of them are women.
The water purification business is also part of the effort to help this group of rice farmers in the SFC group to diversify. They applied for funds from SK and Oxfam to cover the start-up and equipment costs. Each member also invested $30 of their own savings.
Pride in knowledge
Chreb Phrav says she used to be so poor she could not afford nice clothes. “It was hard to go to weddings,” she says, because she was just too embarrassed. Since learning SRI, joining the Saving for Change group, and learning to raise and sell livestock and vegetables, Phrav says things have improved significantly for her family.
“All these alternatives have helped me generate income. Since 2009 I have bought a tractor, a motorbike, a rice mill, and I used part of our income for educating my children, buying clothes, and we built a larger house.”
Her rice mill is under her raised home, along with the motorbike and tractor. Near the steps coming down from the front door is the new latrine, with flowers in planters outside.
The material improvements in her life are significant, but Phrav also says “I’m proud of myself. I have knowledge that no one can steal, and I can use it to run a business, to make money.”
Looking to the future
Back at the water bottling plant, Ngoy Vorn watches Moul Phally and Chreb Phrav load bottles onto the trailer they tow behind a motorbike for deliveries to families and a few stores in and near Por Pi. A sign on the trailer says, “Clean water social enterprise” and “Love your health, drink safe water.”
So far the clean water enterprise has brought in more than $10,000 in its first year of operation and is self-sustaining. Vorn says she hopes her community takes the contributions from the water bottling plant and uses them to help farmers grow more food. “This year I only got 10 sacks of rice due to lack of rain,” she says, as climate change has made rainfall here unpredictable. “With an irrigation system, we could have more water, and we could grow a lot more rice. With enough water, I could get two or three harvests each year.”