A vegetable to root for

Often called a miracle crop, cassava holds great potential for Cambodia. But it’s complex.

By Paul VanDeCarr

Solving the puzzle of cassava would bring benefits for the economy, producers and workers, like these field hands. Photo: Paul VanDeCarr/UNDP

Cassava is a root vegetable that gets made into starch and is used in more things than you know. The starch is used as a thickener in soups, sauces, baby foods and other edibles. It’s a binding agent in sausages. It’s used in biscuits and in baking. It’s in caramel and other candies. It shows up in clothes, cosmetics, capsules, pills, paper and plastic. Chances are good there’s some cassava on your person or in objects within eyesight right now. It also gets made into dried chips that end up as a seasoning or a sweetener in many foods.

It’s such a versatile ingredient that some scientists call it a miracle crop.

And that miracle crop might just help boost Cambodia’s economy. It already plays a big role, comprising five percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), making it the second most valuable crop next to rice, which yields about 10 to 12 percent of GDP.

There’s a reason to root for the root. In terms of dollar value for GDP, cassava takes up a tiny fraction of farmland as compared to rice. What’s more, there’s a niche market for organic cassava in the United States and Western Europe, making the prospects for profit even greater.

But it’s not as easy as just growing more cassava and selling it.

“There’s a complex economy around cassava,” says Leang Reathmana, manager of the cassava project for UNDP in Cambodia. “So far, we’ve tapped some of the great potential that cassava has for Cambodia. Lots of people can benefit: field workers, farmers, plant workers and their families. Now we’re poised to multiply that impact dramatically — if we approach the opportunity from various angles.”

Put another way, if Cambodia can solve the puzzle of cassava, the rewards could be great. But it’s fraught.

Farming

Khan Muon has been a farmer in Sampov Lun for 20 years. He’s got a farmer’s muscles, which are on display as he pulls a cassava plant straight out of the ground to show off the miracle crop. It’s got thick white roots with a tough brown skin. Mr. Khan has prospered, but there are difficulties.

Longtime farmer Khan Muon says it’s tough to turn a profit on cassava. Photo: Paul VanDeCarr/UNDP
“Market prices are the biggest problem with cassava,” he explains. “Fertilizer is expensive. Pesticide is expensive. It’s hard to make a profit.”

If it’s hard for Mr. Khan to make a profit, it’s even harder for smaller farmers than him; without the initial money to invest, they can’t break into the market. Some farmers take out loans, but the risk is great, as defaulting on the loan could cost them their land.

While many small farmers can’t profitably grow cassava on their own, they may be able to do it together. That’s why UNDP supports the Sampov Lun Cassava Farmers’ Association; the group helps smallholder farmers band together and negotiate on tax incentives, export prices and more.

“The association is still small, and membership fees are voluntary,” says Ny Kan, the president of the association. As the group grows in size and influence, farmers will have more of an incentive to pay dues.

Cassava Farmers’ Association president Ny Khan works to help members break into the potentially lucrative cassava market. Photo:Paul VanDeCarr/UNDP

Mr. Ny’s office is located on the border with Thailand, and inside, the walls are lined with photos of his life in farming, including ones of him posing with powerful figures in government. One thing his group offers is good relationships with Cambodian government ministries, as well as with entities in Thailand, a major buyer. Down the road, trucks from the neighbouring country line up to haul off as many of 200 containers of cassava and other crops per day.

Some members of the association also share resources, like silos and machines to dry cassava and turn it into chips. Mr. Ny says he hopes to grow the association to a point where it can provide these benefits for members.

The better able that this and other cassava farmers’ associations are to pool their resources, the more they can grow at scale and turn a profit that will benefit the entire sector. The risk is that the association will be used only by larger farmers who don’t need the extra help anyway.

Processing

Cambodia exports all of its cassava, whether in the form of starch or dried chips. Nobody buys the stuff raw.

Thai Tino aims to post a profit by 2018, the fourth year of operations of his cassava processing plant © Paul VanDeCarr/UNDP

That means that cassava has to be processed in order for growers and field hands to make money. UNDP is supporting a select number of processing plants to boost the cassava sector in Cambodia.

Enter people like Thai Tino, owner of Battambang Agro Industry, or BAI. Mr. Thai has a ready smile and a quick sense of humour. “I didn’t even know what cassava looked like before I got into this!” With his plant now in its third year of operations, Mr. Thai has become quite the expert.

On a tour of the plant, he explains how farmers bring in raw cassava, where it gets weighed on a truck scale. From there it gets cleaned and chopped, and the fiber is separated from the starch milk, which is then cleaned, condensed, stripped of water, and dried. The warehouse can hold up to 10,000 metric tonnes of starch.

Cassava in storage at the BAI processing plant waits to get shipped out for sale. Photo: Paul VanDeCarr/UNDP

It’s an impressive sight — but it’s still not turning a profit. Mr. Thai lost money his first two years, and hopes to break even this year and turn a profit in 2018. The first year was hard because water was in scarce supply; now the big issue is the cost of electricity, and Mr. Thai plans to use biogas to generate power.

Mr. Thai recalls hard times growing up in a small cottage with his family. As a child, if there was nothing else to squelch his hunger, he’d go collect water lilies to eat. He has empathy for the people he employs.

“I want to pay my workers better,” he says. That’s not just good ethics, it’s good business. When he started, he could afford to have the plant operate just one to two months per year; now it’s up to six months. Only when he gets closer to operating all year round will be able to retain workers and pay them more consistently.

Early in 2017, Mr. Thai held a party for about 500 people, mostly farmers and their families. Looking out over the grounds of the plant before the party, he mused, “Happy times are coming for the company.” With any luck, that will also mean happy times for the larger economy.

Markets

Once the cassava is grown and processed, it’s ready for sale. Naturally, it’s the price that determines how many farmers get involved in growing the crop in the first place.

Given how little space the crop takes up, cassava yields a high value for Cambodia’s gross domestic product. Photo: Paul VanDeCarr/UNDP

There are large forces at play in the cassava sector: namely, how much or how little purchasers are willing to pay. China is the biggest consumer of cassava in the world. Other countries in Southeast Asia have typically produced and sold the crop at lower rates, putting Cambodia at a disadvantage.

Still, the opportunities for development are great. For Mr. Leang of UNDP, two paths present themselves.

One is to increase production in Cambodia — which explains UNDP’s support for farmers’ associations and processing plants. The result is more profits for producers, more jobs in the sector and better wages. The more cassava that Cambodia can produce, the lower productions costs will go and the more competitive the country will be internationally.

The other path is to work with new markets. Other countries may dominate in sales to China, but there’s an increasing appetite for cassava — especially organic cassava — in the U.S. and Europe.

Mr. Leang has worked with the Cambodian Ministries of Agriculture and Commerce to meet the demand in these markets. By helping Cambodian producers meet international standards of quality and labour practices, Mr. Leang and the cassava project are opening up new opportunities for development.

Mr. Leang acknowledges that it’s not just Cambodia that can benefit from a stronger cassava sector. “Regional cooperation is important,” he says. “Still, competition is going to happen among different countries. That’s a fact. The best scenario is to have competition within the framework of cooperation.” He envisions Southeast Asian countries working together to make cassava starch more attractive around the world.

The big question

With so much opportunity globally, it’s easy to feel the power of Mr. Leang’s vision. As he talks about it, Mr. Leang drives past vast fields of cassava. He looks out over the expanse and you can’t help but agree with him when he says, “Cassava starch is the future.”

Optimistic as he is, Mr. Leang recognizes that the way forward is not easy.

Field hands like these women currently earn about US$5 per day from cassava. From left to right, Along (age 56, with baby grandson), Ya (17), Khang (65), Samon (45) and Chang (51) work year-round on cassava and other crops. The work is hard but they’re proud to provide for their families. Photo: Paul VanDeCarr/UNDP

By the side of the road, a group of field workers on a single motorcycle and sidecar stop to talk. Ranging in age from 17 to 65, these women — many field hands are women — work year-round on cassava and other crops, doing everything from fertilizing crops to harvesting them. At the moment, they’re clearing weeds from the cassava fields. They came from all over Cambodia to this district for work and have been at it for years, in some cases decades.

“What hurts the most is the joints — your knees and elbows,” a woman says by way of describing the physical work. “You bend at the waist, and then you get a backache,” says another. “So you change position and then get another ache somewhere else.” After a long day on the farm — 10, 12 or more hours — they’ll go home to clean and cook . They are proud to provide for their families. They make about US$5 a day.

Supporting farmers and factory owners boosts the entire sector, but that doesn’t guarantee that workers will benefit. Supporting workers is all well and fine, but it doesn’t mean much unless the whole cassava sector is thriving.

The toughest question, then, remains: How to make sure that workers can go home at the end of their day with fewer aches, better pay and more time to spend with their families?


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