From farmers to retailers: success through incubation programs

Empowering farmers to start and grow successful micro-businesses in Cambodia.

Sophea sitting in a field of lettuce

In Cambodia, SNV’s 8-year CHAIN program applied various successful cornerstone interventions to transform the market system, including business incubation and acceleration support to traders  and input resellers to improve service delivery. Most of the lead farmers (LFs) who completed the technical and business incubation program started their own businesses in their communities. These businesses included agricultural input retailing, vegetable collecting or trade, seedling selling, or pesticide spraying. The program helped LFs gain practical knowledge and tools, including entrepreneurship skills and basic micro-business management, which increased their potential to succeed in business.

Lead farmers provide technical and market information to their peers who farm in the surrounding areas, and also facilitate market linkages and represent the farmers as a group.  They act as focal points for local government technical agriculture extension staff, and for projects and businesses. CHAIN encouraged LFs to start micro-businesses with a business model which offers products and services to neighbouring farmers. Within these businesses LFs can continue to provide technical orientation and market information to benefit their businesses.

CHAIN recruited and oriented 83 LF, of which 39 [i.e., 47%] were female. All recruited LFs learned the tenets of a Business Incubation Program to improve their horticultural agronomy skills and business conceptualization. After finishing the program, they selected and started the micro-businesses they desired. The incubator trainings were conducted by local government extension officers (PDAFF staff) with support from project market linkage facilitators, based on the SHE-INVEST methodology. Most LFs chose to become either vegetable collectors or input retailers, which made market access to inputs and produce, more available to farmers locally. A few LFs specialized in producing and selling grafted tomato seedlings, while one sells compost, and another installs solar panels and pumps.

Mai Sophea is one of the lead farmers who participated in the business incubation program. The 31 year-old mother of three who lives in the Oddar Meanchey province was born into a family of farmers. She learned vegetable production techniques from her parents and started growing vegetables on her own in 2011. She is now a commercial farmer with 5,000 m2 of farmland dedicated to vegetables, which she supplies to local and provincial markets. Her family income mainly derived from horticulture.

Sophea sitting in a field of lettuce

Sophea joined CHAIN as a lead farmer and took part in the business incubation program in 2021. Sophea explained that 'I am a vegetable producer and retailer in Samraong market. I heard from other farmers that CHAIN ran a business incubation program, so I asked Miss Sophy (PDAFF staff) and Mr. Sokchea (PMF staff) if I could join this training program'. After completing the seven-week lead farmer training program and receiving one-on-one coaching, she felt more confident about business management and gained the knowledge and skills she needed to scale up her business. She now buys now vegetables from the neighbouring farmers, which she then retails, offering her neighbours a more secure and nearby market access channel.

Following the incubation program, Sophea was able to increase her sales volume, and began to network with other market actors outside of her province. ‘I had experience in selling vegetables before joining the incubation program,’ she said. ‘However, the program taught me that I could improve my communications and networking not only in my province but also outside of it in order to increase sales.’

Despite the difficulties encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic – namely from decreased demand and supply – she seized the opportunity to increase her family income because other traders decided to stop their vegetable collection businesses, and this created more space for her as a collector and retailer.

Sophea’s long-term goal is to expand her family’s farm and her vegetable selling activity, and to invest in a new business as an input dealer. ‘Production of vegetables in Oddar Meanchey will definitely expand in the future because demand keeps growing,’ she claims.