German chemical giant BASF officially launched its operations in the Kingdom last month aiming to tap into opportunities in the local agriculture industry. Starting with rice, the company’s goal is to increase yields and make local agricultural products more competitive in international markets by introducing new technology. Khmer Times’ May Kunmakara sits down with Martin Wolf, BASF’s business director for Asean, to discuss the company’s short and long-term plans in Cambodia as well as the industry’s current situation and outlook.
KT: Could you give us a brief introduction to your company? Why did BASF decide to enter the Cambodian market now?
Mr Wolf: We are based in Germany and were founded more than 150 years ago. Our mission is to make the chemical industry sustainable in the long run, which means we are working with our customers to innovate and create new products. We focus on a variety of industries, including agriculture. Our goal is to help our customers be more successful and profitable but also more sustainable.
After more than four years working with a local partner, we decided to open an office in Cambodia because we believe there are many opportunities in the agricultural sector here for us. We know that agriculture accounts for more than 25 percent of GDP, with more than four in ten Cambodians working in the industry, making it an essential part of the economy. We have developed a suite of innovative solutions for the sector which we believe can help farmers better manage their fields, increase their income and make their operations more sustainable.
KT: Cambodian farmers are in a vulnerable position due to lack of knowledge, access to market information and finance. In what ways can your company help them?
Mr Wolf: You are right. We have also noticed that access to expertise and information is holding the development of the sector back, increasing challenges for farmers.
Our goal is to help farmers overcome these issues. We mostly do this in two ways. We spend a lot of time meeting one-on-one with the customer and also with larger groups when we visit the villages. In these meetings, we share our knowledge and expertise with farmers. We teach them how to manage their crops more efficiently and sustainably, introduce new technologies and solutions and train them on how to use them.
We hold demo trails. We go to the field with farmers and show them how to use our products. We show them how these products fare against the ones they traditionally use so that they can see the benefits directly.
Secondly, with the digital age upon us, we are putting a lot of emphasis on social media. Most farmers here in Cambodia can now access the Internet through a mobile device. We are leveraging social media and the Internet to help these farmers, using digital platforms to share our expertise. Globally, we have more than 10,000 experts working at BASF to enhance farmers’ access to information, including techniques to efficiently grow rice, corn, and cassava.
KT: What would you say are the main challenges in the local agriculture sector?
Mr Wolf: The biggest challenge is that farmers don’t know what is happening in their fields. They often don’t know what kind of diseases or insects are affecting their crops or how to deal with them.
So the first step is to give them access to the right information and, of course, the right technology. Countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, who are using some of the products we have developed, have increased their yields by as much as 40 percent. In Cambodia, we want to give farmers access to this information and technology because it will enhance yields and the quality of their products while strengthening food security and making local agricultural products more competitive abroad.
Our mission here is to be a partner in the development of the local agriculture sector, to help farmers gain access to knowledge and expertise through our wide network of experts.
KT: What local agricultural products will you be focusing on first?
Mr Wolf: First, we are targeting the rice sector. We want to help farmers manage their fields, improve seeds and control pests. As I told you earlier, an important part of our strategy to improve the rice sector is to leverage digital platforms, particularly Facebook, to share information and expertise with farmers and allow them to ask questions. We will also post videos created by our experts to train farmers.
KT: You have visited and studied the agricultural industries of many Asean countries. How does Cambodia compare?
Mr Wolf: As an example, I can tell you that each hectare of land in Cambodia is, on average, able to produce about three tonnes of produce. However, neighboring countries like Vietnam and Thailand, which compete with Cambodia in the global stage, can produce five or six tonnes. There is no reason whatsoever that we cannot attain similar yield levels here in Cambodia. It is all a matter of, as I said, enhancing access to knowledge, expertise, technology, and innovation – that’s why we are here.
Our mission here is to help and provide expertise, technology, and innovation to farmers. I am really confident that together with farmers and our partners, we will be successful. We will help the local agriculture sector by increasing yields and enhancing the competitiveness of agricultural products abroad.
KT: What other agricultural sectors will you tackle after rice?
Mr Wolf: Rice, being the biggest crop in the country, was the obvious choice to begin with. We are introducing three products to help the rice sector in Cambodia. But we have products for every major crop, including fruits, vegetable, palm oil, and corn. We are planning to tackle other sectors in the near future. We will be looking into the potential of each crop and the needs of local farmers before deciding where to go next.