Initiative helps low-income Cambodian women farmers become entrepreneurs

Maricel Saenz, Lawrence Leung, Mr Khon Son and Ms. Nuong Norm with Cambodian farmers.

Maricel Saenz, Lawrence Leung, Mr Khon Son and Ms. Nuong Norm with Cambodian farmers. | Courtesy of Jeff Kroeker

Fish on Farms, a project of UBC’s faculty of land and food systems and Helen Keller International (HKI) in partnership with UBC’s Sauder School of Business Arc Initiative, aims to fight malnutrition among poor women and children in rural Cambodia. Since 2012, Fish on Farms has helped women farmers establish fishponds and gardens at their homes, providing them with greater access to nutrient-rich foods to improve both their diets and livelihoods.

Fortifying diets in Cambodia

The Prey Veng province in Cambodia produces plenty of rice – it is the region’s staple food. “But people need more than rice to stay healthy. A diet short of protein, vitamins and minerals creates enormous problem,” says Jeff Kroeker, Sauder instructor, founder and leader of the Arc Initiative. Rice-based diets in rural Cambodia tend to lack adequate protein, fat and micronutrients, which can lead to anaemia, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and stunting in children’s growth. According to the project’s research, in Cambodia 55 per cent of young children and 44 per cent of women of childbearing age are anaemic. Five per cent of children die before their fifth birthday, with one-third of those deaths due to malnutrition. Cambodia has more stunted children than any other Asian country. Stunted growth puts people at a lifelong disadvantage. “There’s only a certain point in which to grow during development. If you miss that point, then you’re going to be stunted for the rest of your life,” says Tim Green, UBC Human Nutrition professor. Fish on Farms seeks to increase and diversify local food production and provide low-income households with affordable and nutritious foods as well as new sources of income. So far, 300 fishponds and 600 gardens have been established. “When they eat the small fish, they eat the entire fish. That contains all the vitamins and minerals, all the other good things,” says Green.

Empowering women

The project also educates mothers about child feeding, nutritional intake, sanitation and hygiene practices, and provides entrepreneurial training to women. Women have control of this enterprise, which tends to increase women’s share of household income and decision-making. “We targeted, specifically, very poor women-headed households, and these are women farmers. There’s good evidence from around the world that if you improve a woman’s situation, you will improve the whole family’s situation, which isn’t necessarily true for men,” explains Green. To carry out that project UBC students will travel to Cambodia for rotating four-month internships, along with Sauder alumni who will act as advisors. They will help the farmers launch business ventures or social enterprises with the food they grow. Kroeker and a team of Sauder students and alumni travelled to Cambodia last month to start the work. On the ground they had the help of Ly SokHoing, who works for HKI in Cambodia, and her ability to speak Khmer is an asset. “It is the partnership with HKI and UBC that makes this amazing project possible,” says Kroeker. “Working with these farmers to facilitate the productivity of their farms will be a tremendous opportunity for our team.” Kroeker sees Fish on Farms as a catalyst for long-term change. “It will give us the chance to sow the seeds of new ventures that have the very real potential to improve the health and economic wellbeing of people in the region,” he adds. The project also helps reveal the new talents of tomorrow. For example, one of the students, Maricel Saenz, who also volunteered in 2013 with Arc Initiative in South Africa, came from Costa Rica to study at Sauder and will be starting her career in consulting at Deloitte in Vancouver. Kroeker is proud to see a new generation of business students who take part in these projects selflessly, as they even pay their own way to go to those countries. For more information, please visit Arc Initiative on Facebook.