14.08.2018 - Clint Smythe is volunteering as a Horticultural Business Development Adviser in Siem Reap, Cambodia. 

The experienced Horticulturalist has a long career in New Zealand including, most recently, heading the Board of Potatoes NZ. Working with International Development Enterprises (iDE), Clint's assignment focuses on working with around 500 farmers to encourage more diverse, high-value planting. he is accompanied by his wife Krista, and took some time to answer our questions about his work, living in Siem Reap and the impact he and Krista are having beyond his assignment.

What inspired you to volunteer in the first place?

I saw a TV advert for VSA when I was about 10 years old, I was inspired then and decided one day I would like to do something like that. Now that our children have left home Krista and I have reached a stage in life where we would like to give something back and help improve the lives of others.

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Krista and Clint Smythe in Cambodia.

How did you become involved in Horticulture?

My parents were very keen home gardeners who produced most of their own food for the family so I have been involved with the practical side of horticulture production from a very young age. Through encouragement from my High School horticulture teacher I started growing vegetables in my free time and sold them to the local shop and wholesale market. I went on to study Horticulture at University and have worked in the industry ever since.

I enjoy working with nature and producing healthy food and the people in the industry are great to work with.

What wins/challenges/needs in relation to food/horticulture/agriculture can you see in the local community?

Wins:

  • Farmers are learning new skills and adopting new technology in order to grow vegetables out of season. This enables them to earn higher returns for their produce.
  • The supermarket industry is expanding rapidly in Cambodia; this provides market access to upper and middle income customers.
  • There is strong demand for food that is produced in Cambodia.

Challenges:

  • Up to 50% of fruit and vegetables consumed in Cambodia are imported from neighbouring countries. It is often difficult to differentiate between local and imported product in the market place.
  • Food safety is an issue and the adoption of good agricultural practices (GAP) is challenging.
  • Farmers’ education levels are generally quite low and business skills are limited. Rural education is often by rote learning so there is a lack of critical thinking skill. If you add this into the cycle of poverty it tends to create situations where decisions are made for the short term with lack of thought to their long term consequences, this often perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
  • It can be difficult at times to encourage farmers to work together collaboratively for the benefit of all. Trust levels can be low in some communities that we work with and jealousy can become a problem if one farmer begins to do better than another.
  • There is limited understanding of supply and demand, if farmers see another farmer having success in one commodity they will tend to copy and grow the same crop. The result is over supply and very low market prices. This creates a boom and bust cycle in many agricultural and horticultural commodities.
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Fruit at the supermarket

How do you feel your assignment is helping the goal of “Zero Hunger” in the local community?

Traditional food production is based around rice; many farmers can only produce one crop a year of rice. So the household income is limited to one main income source per year. The project I am working with is helping famers improve their incomes through new skills that allow them to grow common horticultural crops (cucumbers, rice melons, long beans) out of season and earn higher incomes. Farmers who become skilled at growing common crops are encouraged to try growing high value crops (sweet melons, cherry tomatoes, capsicums). They can earn very good returns from these crops but there are associated higher risks in growing them.

The added income sources from vegetable production help families smooth out their income stream for the year, providing extra money for food and expenses, therefore helping with the goal of “Zero Hunger.”

A good example of the difference the project is making is found with one farming couple who converted their 1.5ha farm to vegetable production, growing a range of different common vegetable crops. They were able to earn a profit of $US7,500 from one crop cycle. The equivalent profit from rice production on 1.5ha would have been $US550.

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Diversifying crops increases profits.

 

What is it like to live in Cambodia? Best surprise/biggest adjustment? What do you and Krista do in your free time?

It is very easy to live in Siem Reap; it is a major tourist destination now with many visitors coming to see Angkor Wat and the other temples. Tourism then brings employment, a higher standard of living than some other areas in Cambodia, more shops, access to more international goods. I would not say it is easy to live in other parts of Cambodia.

There is rapid development happening in parts of Cambodia, particularly Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. There are many new hotels and housing complexes being built, large shopping malls are now starting to appear in Phnom Penh as well. You can often feel like you are constantly moving between to different worlds. You can be out in rural Cambodia meeting with farmers who live in simple wooden houses on stilts and then come back into town at night and do your shopping in a modern western style supermarket.

The Khmer people are very nice, easy to get along with and very helpful. It is obviously hot but you get used to the temperatures, it is now the rainy season so you get used to heavy dumps of rain in the afternoon and the likely-hood of getting wet if you go out!

Best surprise: how easy it is to live here.

Biggest adjustment: I am used to living in the countryside, mowing the lawns, doing the garden, fishing, hunting, outdoors. Can’t do all of that in the middle of a city in a one bedroom apartment!

What do we do in our free time?  On Saturday we both help at an organisation where Krista volunteers during the week. Touch a Life makes meals for children in orphanages and school children who come to the city to study and have to live away from their parents. On Saturdays we make up to 700 meals to take out to local villages to provide a healthy meal from families who struggle to earn a decent living.

We go to Khmer language classes 3 evenings a week, learning the language is helping us develop meaningful relationships with many of the Khmer people that we meet or work with.

On Sunday mornings we go to church, in a predominately Khmer congregation. We are meeting some great people who inspire us and invite us to be part of the community. We have already been invited to a Khmer wedding which was a great experience.

One of the local bicycle tour companies offers a free community bike ride the first Sunday of the month, we join in on this each month. Each month is a different 30 or 40km circuit around the outskirts of Siem Reap. It allows us to meet some great people and see parts of the countryside that we would not otherwise.

After that I don’t think there is much free time left!!

 

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