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Universities in Agricultural Innovation

Safiya Charles / Khmer Times Share:
Veng Sokhon of the Ministry of Agriculture and US Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt sign an MoU launching the Center of Excellence. US Embassy

As rice farmers struggle to cope with the aftereffects of one of the worst droughts in Cambodia’s recent history and moribund infrastructure makes it difficult to transport and sell their products across the country, universities here and in the United States are joining forces to help farmers improve and look to the future.
In a bid to improve cross-sector collaboration and strengthen institutional capacity building, the Royal University of Agriculture (RUA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) signed an MoU yesterday recognizing the establishment of a new center aimed at spurring innovation and sustainable growth throughout the country’s rapidly developing agricultural sector.
According to USAID, the Center of Excellence on Sustainable Agricultural Intensification and Nutrition (CE SAIN) will foster education, “cutting edge” agricultural research and training as well as initiate private sector innovation and public sector development with the goal of improving food and nutritional security nationwide.
The project falls under USAID’s Feed the Future (FTF) initiative, which works in 19 countries to help improve food security and fuel agriculture-based innovation. In total, CE SAIN’s budget will amount to $3.5 million in funding over the next five years.
One important focus of the program will be providing vocational and non-degree training to farmers and professionals in the agro-industry, filling in technical gaps with specialized information.
US Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt welcomed the occasion as an expansion of the two governments’ partnership in an agricultural sector growing towards modernization.
“Increasingly technology is modernizing the agricultural value chain from the field to the table, but there’s still room for Cambodia’s agricultural sector to grow further and become more competitive in the region and around the world…[it] has the potential to be an engine for economic growth, rural development and to strengthen food security,” he said at the launch.
The center will connect a network of FTF’s hubs or innovation labs working in the initiative’s identified zones of influence – concentrated mainly in the provinces surrounding the Tonle Sap – on primary value chains. The six innovation labs include sustainable intensification, nutrition, integrated pest management, horticulture, livestock systems and aquafish innovation.
Michael Roberts, country director at iDE, which runs an innovation lab focused on pest management and horticulture, said the project had the capacity to help ensure greater collaboration between labs which have faced difficulties connecting and sharing knowledge with innovation labs and Cambodian institutions, among other organizations.
“The creation of this center is a really great idea in terms of bringing together all of the different research activities that are happening because otherwise, they could be very disjointed. This kind of creates an opportunity to coordinate and bring everything together so that things are working in harmony instead of all over the place,” Mr. Roberts said.
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Veng Sokhon gave the ceremony’s opening speech and emphasized the supreme importance of the program’s human resources – the RUA students who will become the country’s next agricultural pioneers.
“Innovation is essential in the potential for fostering national economic growth…the university needs to [educate] students to adhere to a culture of research and innovation – this will be the culture of the new generation,” he said.
Through international academic exchange programs with US universities such as Kansas State, Virginia Tech and Michigan State, CE SAIN will attempt to foster the exchange of knowledge, research and creativity between agricultural students and faculty from Cambodia and abroad.
“[CE SAIN] is going to help link the Royal University with some of America’s best agricultural universities – and that’s important to bring that scientific expertise, the connection between Cambodian scientists and American scientists so that we can improve research here in Cambodia,” said Mr.  Heidt.
In addition to nurturing international cooperation, the program will establish five “technology parks” in agro-ecological zones in Phnom Penh and across the provinces of Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampong Cham and Kampong Thom.
The techno-parks will serve to showcase new and promising strategies and technologies that could benefit small-holder farm production as well as attract interaction between the private-sector, researchers and growers.
While challenges such as building applied research, improving post-harvest infrastructure and increasing financial services in rural areas must be faced as the agriculture sector continues to expand, the ambassador said the center was just what the industry needed.
“That’s where this Center of Excellence will come in, by tapping into the knowledge of premier universities like the RUA. Research centers like the one we are launching today can drive innovation in agriculture by coordinating research, raising funds and connecting [that] research to practical applications.”

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