Archive: Michael Roberts -

14 October 2010 | Posted By: Michael Roberts

Women: The Engines of Rural Markets

By Michael Roberts, Director, IDE Cambodia

“You cannot ignore the importance of women in rural markets”

World Food Day, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s annual campaign to raise awareness of hunger, extreme poverty and malnutrition, takes place on Saturday 16 October. The theme, ‘United against Hunger’, focuses on the pressing need to increase food production by 70 percent by 2050, and identifies farmers and farming as major contributors to this goal. Coinciding appropriately with the UN event is World Rural Women’s Day on 15 October, which aims to highlight rural women’s crucial, yet largely unrecognised role in agriculture.

If you are serious about addressing rural poverty, you cannot ignore the role of women in rural markets. In Cambodia, women make up the majority of the agricultural labour force but they tend to have less access to resources and assets that would increase their productivity. Cambodian women also play significant roles in trade, entrepreneurship, and business management although they often face more obstacles than men in these roles.

In IDE’s Nestlé-supported project, for instance, women make up only about one in ten of the Farm Business Advisors (FBAs) that have been recruited and trained, due largely to the requirement for mobility. FBAs need to travel frequently between villages to promote their business and provide service to existing customers.  Concerns about safety make many women hesitant to travel, while responsibilities for cooking and childcare make it difficult to be absent from home for more than a few hours.

Despite greater barriers, the women who have taken up the FBA role are among the highest performers, averaging 45 percent higher sales than the male FBAs.

Interestingly, we also find that the FBA role is nearly always run as a family business with active involvement of the spouse and other family members. So even when a man is listed as the FBA, women are active participants in the business, usually taking on essential home-based tasks like caring for the vegetable demonstration plot and selling products to clients that come to the house.

More important than the number of female FBAs, perhaps, is the impact that FBAs are having on women farmers. Follow-up surveys indicate that FBA clients earn an average additional income of about US$150 per year. The surveys also indicate that about 35 percent of vegetable crop management and 79 percent of crop marketing is done by women. Thus, in most cases, income from vegetable production goes into the women’s hands first.

I recently talked with Mom Samol, a woman farmer in Prey Veng province. She described a typical day marketing the long beans from her vegetable plot. She can harvest about 10 kg of beans once every two or three days for about a month. She picks the ripe beans, ties them in bundles, and then takes them on her bike to sell to small road-side vendors near her village. It takes her about an hour and she receives USD 0.50 per kg, which amounts to about $5 each time she harvests. She uses part of the money to pay for daily expenses and puts away some money for larger purchases in the future. The daily expenses she handles on her own; the larger expenses she discusses with her husband. She expects him to discuss large expenses with her also.

We believe that the FBA project is having a positive impact on gender equity by improving women’s ability to access and benefit from the products and information provided by FBAs.

3 September 2010 | Posted By: Michael Roberts

IDE at World Water Week

From Mike Roberts, Country Director of  IDE Cambodia…

Next week I will be joining the Nestlé CSV team on their stand at World Water Week 2010 in Stockholm, on Monday 6 September (11:30 – 13:00 CET) and Tuesday 7 September (09:30 -11:00 CET).

As Country Director of IDE Cambodia, I will be talking about the essential role of water in agriculture and in rural communities. This is from our experience of setting up the Farm Business Advisors Project, for which we won the first ever Nestlé Prize in Creating Shared Value this year.

In Cambodia, where scarce water resources and poor water quality are a pervasive constraint to rural development, we have been using water as a strategic entry point in our programs addressing poverty.

If you are attending World Water Week, please stop by the Nestlé booth to say hello.

24 August 2010 | Posted By: Michael Roberts

Creating Value at Farm Level

Michael Roberts is Country Director of IDE Cambodia. In May 2010, IDE Cambodia was awarded the first Nestlé Prize in Creating Shared Value for its innovative Farm Business Advisor (FBA) project, which aims to improve the living standards of the country’s rural population by increasing agricultural productivity and income. Here, he explains some of the ideas and background behind it…


Agriculture in Cambodia is at a very basic level with some of the lowest yields in the region. Consequently even very simple improvements in the quality of inputs or cultivation practices can have a big impact on productivity. Since the mid-1990s, we have been working to help Cambodian farmers increase their incomes. We began by introducing small-plot irrigation devices like foot powered treadle pumps and low-cost drip irrigation systems.

Incomes improved but even when their water constraint was solved, farmers would quickly run into another wall, which would limit profit. We spent a lot of time listening to them and found that to get the maximum benefit from better water control they needed to be able to access a more integrated package of agricultural inputs and advice.

Originally, we used our staff to deliver these services but then we realised that if a few inputs and a little advice could create significant value for small farmers then there must be a viable business in there somewhere. In 2005, we began to train and support a network of small rural entrepreneurs to become Farm Business Advisors (FBAs), selling a range of products and services to help small-scale farmers improve their farming techniques and income.

The surveys we have conducted with FBA clients demonstrate that on average, their income has increased by about USD 150 per year. This is a significant change in areas where cash income in an average household is only about USD 30 per month. The average monthly income for an FBA is currently about USD 60. This has been increasing month by month but is still too low given the amount of work they do. For now, most FBAs are content with this because of the high value that they place on the training that they receive. In the long-term, we estimate that FBAs will be able to make more than USD 200 per month as their client base, range of products, and experience grows.

IDE differs from the traditional NGO model in that we take a market-based approach to all of our projects. We treat people as customers, not beneficiaries. This simple change in perspective has profound implications on how we work. If I have to convince someone to purchase something, then my success is absolutely dependent on listening to them, understanding them, and responding to their highest priority needs.

This also means that we don’t provide direct subsidies to our customers. If we have done a good job of listening to their needs (including that for affordability) then even very poor people will be able to purchase items that improve their well being.

The Nestlé CSV Prize will help us to expand the current project, adding an additional 36 FBAs toward our ultimate goal of more than 500. We will also be leveraging the Prize to attract additional funding from several donor agencies that are planning substantial investment in the agriculture sector in over the next several years.

Once the project reaches the scale of 500+ FBAs, we expect that the franchise enterprise will be able to operate independently without additional donor funding. As we move from a successful pilot into a scale up phase we expect a number of challenges.

For instance, the FBAs have seen a rapid growth in clients over the past dry season. To ensure that most of these become repeat customers, the FBAs must find the right balance between client numbers and the amount of follow-up service that can be provided to ensure that the clients are successful.

Creating Shared Value is the very heart of this project. FBAs work with their farmer clients to increase agricultural production and improve incomes. If the farmers are successful, the FBAs are successful. If the FBAs are successful, the franchise enterprise is successful. The system flourishes only if there is real value being created at the farm level.

— Michael Roberts, Country Director, IDE Cambodia

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