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Family farming for the future

September 26, 2018

New farming ventures are improving incomes, health, and family cohesion in Cambodia.

Cambodia’s economy is growing, child mortality and malnutrition rates have declined, and the country’s strengthening agriculture sector has the potential to drive further economic growth. Despite this progress, poverty and food insecurity persist, with nearly a third of the rural population living below the poverty line. Most rural Cambodians depend on subsistence agriculture to feed their families, but poor land use, dependence on rain-fed agriculture, and the lack of agro-processing infrastructure contribute to seasonal food shortages and a lack of food diversity.

Research highlights

  • A demonstrated model to scale up enhanced homestead food production

  • Improved health, particularly among women and young children

  • New opportunities for families to generate income from surplus vegetables and fish

  • Stronger participation of men in farming and household chores

  • A profitable business model for small-scale hatcheries

  • Improved access to resources, suppliers, and markets

To counter these issues, Helen Keller International (HKI) piloted an enhanced homestead food production (EHFP) model with 900 women-headed households during the first phase of CIFSRF-funded projects (2009-2013).

The model provided vulnerable women farmers with initial inputs, technical training on improved agriculture practices, and instruction on nutrition, entrepreneurship, and women’s empowerment.

However, the trial faced challenges that limited its potential, such as farmers not having the option to choose their agricultural intervention, lack of markets for surplus produce, divisions of labour between women and men, and seasonal limitations for home gardens and fish ponds. The subsequent CIFSRF project “Family farms for the future” was launched to address these challenges.

A refined approach to new farming ventures

Canadian and Cambodian researchers worked with farmers to refine a scalable and cost-effective model to improve dietary diversity and food security in various agro-ecological regions of Cambodia. The EHFP model provided initial inputs (e.g. quality seeds, fingerlings, chicks) and training on sustainable agriculture to improve household gardening practices and create more productive, resilient, and environmentally-sustainable year-round food systems. The project found that farmers from diverse regions were more likely to adopt the EHFP model if they contributed to the cost of inputs and selected the model type (garden, fish pond, and/or poultry) that best meets their needs and preferences.

In this expanded project, 4,600 households in 232 villages in four Cambodian provinces developed or improved a combination of vegetable gardens, poultry farms, and fish ponds, in addition to another 3,500 non-targeted households (for a total of 17,500 family members). Of these households, 96% established gardens and the vast majority adopted improved gardening practices, including water and soil conservation and appropriate fertilizer use.

Households that participated in the project grew more produce and raised more fish — enough to feed their family a nutritious diet and to sell surplus for additional income. Food security increased almost three-fold (from 26% to 72%) and agricultural productivity rose from 60% to nearly 100% from the use of cultivated gardens in the household. Overall, the EHFP model contributed an estimated 28,000 kg of fish; 260,000 eggs; and 6 million kg of fruit to the local food supply.  

Empowering female farmers

A training program and manual proved effective at addressing locally relevant gender issues, particularly women’s autonomy in income expenditures, domestic abuse, and workload. The training sessions resulted in more men participating in chores traditionally done by women. A female farmer was enthused to report “My husband now… helps me with chores, he earns money, and he no longer squanders our income.”

By empowering women to take ownership of the farms, EHFP generated opportunities for them to improve their livelihoods and directly oversee household finances. By the end of the study, 90% of the decisions related to farming were made by women.

Improving nutrition

Throughout the project, households increased crop diversity and mitigated the impact of seasonality by growing 15 types of vegetables. EHFP reduced the frequency of nutrient inadequacy among women and young children (e.g. children in the EHFP group had a significantly lower risk of prevalence of dietary inadequacy for zinc in the lean season). Focus groups participated in creating common recipes and a recipe database and the project also developed a Cambodian Food Composition Database that is now in the public domain. Training sessions were also developed to improve hygiene standards and household ability to identify nutrient-rich foods.

HKI is sharing its learnings with neighbouring countries through regional workshops. The project’s results encouraged one of the partners to expand a WorldFish-funded program offered in Battambang and Siem Riep by including small indigenous fish, as well as nutrition and gender training. HKI is also implementing parts of its surveillance trial to more rigorously evaluate agricultural production and dietary patterns in about 600 households in northern Vietnam and 10,000 households in Myanmar — evidence that will be used to further refine and scale up EHFP in Cambodia and elsewhere.

Informing policy and decision-making

The EHFP model is considered to be a cost-effective model to improve dietary diversity and food security. The project team was able to advise the Cambodian government on the current National Strategy for Food Security and Nutrition 2014-2018, and they are currently advising on the next five-year strategy. The Fisheries Administration has been able to take steps to incorporate the project’s polyculture model in the upcoming 2019-2023 strategy. However, the long-term sustainability of the EHFP model will depend on the support of local leadership and the transfer of program ownership to local institutions.

The Canadian International Food Security Research Fund is jointly funded by IDRC and Global Affairs Canada.

Learn more about this project and its outcomes.