FAO in Cambodia

Enhancing access of the most vulnerable households to rural finance: How Mr and Mrs Poeu cope with COVID-19 crisis

Mrs Cheut Lin (right) and her daughter (middle) are harvesting vegetable to sell to a middlewoman (left).

Mr Pov Poeu and Mrs Cheut Lin, and their two children aged 15 and 3 are among 27 percent of poor households of Betkar village, Svay Leu commune, Svay Leu district, a rural community located around 50 km from Siem Reap Province to the north. The villagers’ main source of livelihoods is subsistence rice farming on the flat land and cash crops like cashew nut and cassava. Some very poor dwellers live on non-timber forest products such as wild vegetables.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Pov Poeu and Mrs Cheut Lin and other poor Betkar villagers could not secure their food from their less than 0.5 hectare of land, which they use for one rice planting cycle in the rainy season only.  This tiny piece of land provides them with rice - their staple food - for just a few months of the year, leaving a large percentage of their food needs relying on daily casual labour within their community or seasonal migration jobs. 

The family lives in a small home. Their 15 year-old daughter enrolls in grade seven and usually herds a neighbor’s few cows so that her family will get a calf in exchange of her labor – a traditional practice. The small boy usually goes along with their parents to work. The family spends at least USD 3 per day for food, including rice and meat or fish, but they often have to decide whether to go for only meat or vegetable. They cannot afford both all the time.

COVID-19 has heavily affected people’s livelihoods across Cambodia, particularly for those employed in the informal sector, in the tourism and garment industry, and those relying on seasonal migration job. Mr Poeu’s family is no exception. He has lost his daily labour job in the community and was not able to travel for a seasonal job due to fear of the pandemic, resulting in the monthly loss of about USD 300 from his seasonal labour, which was the only cash income for his family.

Luckily, Mr Poeu’s family is among the 688 539 households registered in Cambodia’s largest poverty registry, the IDPoor. He benefited from the RGC’s nationwide cash transfer programme designed to help the poor and vulnerable households to meet their immediate needs during the COVID-19 crisis. Thus far, the family is so thankful for the monthly amount of USD 50 they regularly received from the RGC since July 2020. However, they still cannot let go their worries, as this amount cannot secure other household basic needs, nor ensure their food production for household consumption. This is the case of many households who have too little or no rice in stock.

Things began to change in June 2020, when the couple joined the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)’s one-year programme support on “Improvement of poor and vulnerable households’ livelihoods in three villages of Svay Leu district, Siem Reap Province amid COVID-19”. It was implemented in partnership with a local NGO, called the Cambodian Institute for Research and Rural Development (CIRD), the Ministry of Environment (MoE), and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). The programme was dedicated to helping the most vulnerable families to meet their immediate needs, while enabling them to sustain food security and nutrition during this most challenging time. The couple was identified by CIRD in collaboration with local authorities and validated by FAO to become one of 114 beneficiary families.

The project used the Cash+ approach, an intervention that combines cash transfers with productive assets, inputs, technical training and extension services to enhance the livelihoods and productive capacities of poor and vulnerable households. The project has helped them to transform the bare sandy land around their home into a colorful vegetable garden in July 2020.

“I first received an unconditional amount of USD 60, which we used to buy food. This amount topped up the government’s package we received, allowing us to afford adequate food for another fifteen days. But, what made me feel better is our additional home garden,” said Mr Poeu.

“I’d never thought that it would be possible to transform the bare land around our home into a nice vegetable garden. After having received farming inputs and the proper techniques in soil preparation, soil amendment with organic input and fertilizer, I thought to myself I must try my best. It paid off. We had additional food in a short time and also some cash from selling them,” he continued with a smile.

The project has built the capacity of a volunteer extension worker and paid for his personal travel for 14 days per month. This committed extension worker visited Mr Poeu as well as other beneficiaries, gave them technical support, and helped families solve technical problems. CIRD also further provided advice and local know-how to the beneficiary families.

The family also benefited from an improved water infrastructure, installed by the project with a 10 000 litre water-tank and distribution to 92 families in the village, ensuring they have access to quality water to use not only for daily consumption but also for their home gardening.

Mr and Mrs Poeu could earn some extra incomes from selling their surplus for a good price as their products are free from chemicals. Their supply was temporarily disrupted during the first reported COVID-19 community transmission case on 28 of November 2020, as the weekend market in the city center, where the family’s vegetables are usually sold, was temporarily closed. However, the market soon re-opened.

“Our vegetables are very safe. We only use compost fertilizer and natural pesticides introduced to us by the project to protect them from pests,” said Mr Poeu.

With additional knowledge from the project, Ms Lin also proudly shared the tactic to keep her vegetables grow well and fast. “It is about rotation with different crops. If we grow one type of vegetable many times on the same piece of land, our vegetable will not grow well. We must rotate,” she repeated with a big smile on her face.

Ms Lin, who takes care of food for her family, also happily shared the fact that they could have more nutritious food than before. “With this homestead garden, we can cook more variety of food. We eat more vegetable than before.” 

The project also facilitated the establishment of saving groups, building their capacity and supporting them each with USD 100 of seed capital to allow members to sustain agricultural livelihoods and accumulate savings. Each beneficiary family can borrow money from their saving group to invest in productive activities and/or to meet other important family needs.

This project also provides good learnings on complementary efforts to maximize the impacts of Government initiatives.  The Cash+ approach complements well the emergency cash transfer in response to COVID-19, helping the poorest and most vulnerable farmers strengthen their productive capacities and ability to access rural finance for more sustainable livelihoods, food security and nutrition.