For the third year in a row, Cambodia’s premier rice has been voted the world’s best at the World Rice Conference. The award, which it shares this year with Thailand, comes at a time when Cambodia is looking at rice exports as a way to increase incomes for its many impoverished subsistence farmers.
Although Cambodia is a minnow in the world rice stakes, producing just 1 percent of global output in 2012, the award for its fragrant romduol varietal should help promote exports.
The rice industry, though small-scale and inefficient, remains key to the economy. Most Cambodians survive in part by growing rice on small plots. Inefficiencies mean large amounts of unmilled rice -- known as paddy -- go to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam where they fetch a higher price.
Sok Puthyvuth, the president of the Cambodia Rice Federation, which represents all players in the industry, said, “We need better seeds, we need a better collection process, we need better storage, we need better logistics, and also our exports need to brand Cambodian rice to be one of the top brands in the world.”
The target is 1 million tons of milled rice exported by 2015. So far this year Cambodia has exported about 400,000 tons -- mostly to the European Union.
Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon said a central tenet -- to boost farmers' incomes -- remains key to government efforts to improve the industry.
“I want to emphasize that the purpose of the rice policy is to reduce poverty, to ensure people in rural areas earn more, and to reduce the development gap between rural and urban areas,” Chhon said.
To help develop the industry, China is loaning $300 million to improve warehousing.
Yet longstanding problems remain, said exporter David Van, including the high cost of electricity and a lack of quality seedlings.
Van also wants better branding for the award-winning rice, which currently is marketed as “Cambodian Jasmine Rice.” He said that name is too close to Thailand’s fragrant variety.
“You need to differentiate your product from your competitor next door, otherwise you will keep on being compared automatically to what the next-door competitor is offering," Van said.
"If you are talking about jasmine rice, we have a variety that has won consecutively the world’s best rice, which is the romduol. So maybe it is high time that we really develop a branding based on the romduol variety," he said.
Challenges remain: Thailand’s rice stockpile has driven down prices, making it harder to compete; meantime countries like Myanmar also want to increase exports.
But even if Cambodia doesn’t reach the million-ton target next year, its award-winning rice should appear on more plates around the world, lifting incomes for millers, exporters and its millions of impoverished farmers.