Weeding Out The Complexities Of Rice Farming
Pan Pen testing rice transplanting machine imported from China. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam
Born into a rice farming family and assigned to an agricultural machine-building unit during the Khmer Rouge, Pen Ben’s young life revolved around maximum productivity of rice production. At 55-years-old Pen, who resides in Takeo Province, continues to develop tools that increase rice-farming efficiency and is finding solutions to new farming issues through his successful business as a fabricator of modern farming technologies.
In 2008 Pen joined Oxfam’s partner RACHANA for a project to promote women in farming. Through the program, Pen was introduced to a team of female farmers, and in association with his own exposure to the hardships of farming, he said this is what inspired him to develop farming equipment that not only increases efficiency but is accessible to both men and women at an affordable price. He is now the local leading farm equipment producer in Takeo province and in collaboration with Oxfam and RACHANA, developed his first innovative tool, the Neak Srer, commonly known as the Rice Dragon. The instrument decreases the hands-on labour traditionally necessary to weed rice paddy fields; and since 2009, Pen has produced 3000 Rice Dragons that have been transported throughout Cambodia.
Niek Srer is a tool that is designed to weed rice that grow using System Rice Intensification type--a methodology that increase yield of rice production. It uses seedlings singly spaced.
“The Neak Srer removes weeds easily and aerates soil. It makes rice grow better and can improve the yield. The weeds become compost to fertilize the rice as they decay," Pen said.
"For farmers, the Neak Srer can provide many advantages and contribute to improving livelihoods.”
Three thorough rounds of field testing and improvements to the Neak Srer ensured both women and men were satisfied with the accessibility of the tool. The results proved the benefits of the tool reach beyond increasing rice production. The Neak Srer is an environmental friendly tool as it limits the use of chemicals herbicides, benefiting not only the production and product, but also the small creatures that live in the paddy fields.
Pen said that the latest version of Neak Srer is very successful because it works well for both female and male farmers and using the machine reduces the time it takes to manually weed one hectare from four days to one.
Oxfam supported a marketing campaign to promote the Neak Srer in rural farming communities where labour shortages are significantly seen due to livelihood migration. Pen’s involvement in the campaign, demonstrating how the machine works in the rice fields, connected farmers who use traditional methods to the new techniques and provided the opportunity for them to have a go and understand more about the benefits of the tool.
“I don’t earn much profit from producing the Neak Srer, but I am impressed with Oxfam’s works that try to improve farmers’ livelihoods and end poverty. I was so inspired by the marketing campaign, especially the village based aspects,” Pen said.
Pen said the best way to increase communities’ acceptance of a new tool is through farmer-to-farmer sharing and he has implemented this approach with his most recent venture, the Drum Seeder. In collaboration with Rachana, Pen is exploring a new tool to work alongside the Neak Srer that is designed to sow rice seeds evenly over a field. Recently, Pen said producing the Drum Seeder has been the priority but as construction takes fifteen days, five times longer than producing the Neak Srer, so far only four have been manufactured. When a Drum Seeder is purchased Pen spends a day providing training about the equipment. As an extension, Pen said he has found these farmers then share the knowledge to other provinces that are also struggling with the lack of available farm labourers.
Oxfam has worked with local partners and education institutions in Cambodia to re-design and contextualize agricultural tools to the benefit of small-scale farmers. A project with the Royal University of Agriculture is currently underway to design a new rice transplanting machine, and Pen offered his expertise for raising awareness of a modern techniques benefit in rural communities. With increased business expertise through Oxfam’s partnership with Deloitte, the aim is to take the production process of the project a step further with a commercialisation plan under development to ensure maximum accessibility for poor farmers.
With individuals like Pen developing and locally producing modern technical farming tools, Cambodian communities are continuing to weed out the complexities of rice farming. While proudly explaining the functions of the Drum Seeder, Pen explained his secret to success is developing machines that farmers love as much as he does.