Interview with Matthew Owen, Project Development Executive at Benline Agencies and Vice-Chairman of the Transport & Logistics Committee

This week, we interviewed Matthew Owen, Project Development Executive at Benline Agencies and Vice-Chairman of the Transport and Logistics Committee. Mr. Owen worked in logistics in his native Australia and is currently working towards a master’s degree in disaster management. In Cambodia, Mr. Owen worked at the Okavu gold mine before moving to Benline, where he oversees shipping logistics via sea and land in Cambodia. 

EuroCham: Could you tell us how you got into the logistics sector in Cambodia?

Matthew: Moving to Cambodia in February of 2020, I came with the hopes of working in the logistics sector and developing my skillset in the overseas market. However, Covid-19 had other plans for the majority of us and my plans were flipped upside down when most companies and NGO's started repatriating their employees and went on indefinite hiring freezes. During this time, I picked up my post graduate studies in disaster and emergency management and began teaching English full time at one of the local middle schools.

Fortunately, I was able to move into a position at the Okvau Gold Project operating in Mondulkiri Province which gave me invaluable experience working with local teams in a challenging and new environment. Piggy backing off my experiences in mining transportation in Australia, I was able to join with Benline Integrated Logistics (Cambodia) which was providing transportation and other services for the mine at the time.

In Australia, I worked in mining transportation for five years, specialising in the transport of uranium, mining equipment, and hazardous materials. I was able to transpose the skills that I learned there to Cambodia, and I’ve been trying to implement some of these ideas into the trucking transport sector here. The Okavu Gold Mine is a good example of effectively implementing Australian standards -- the equipment has to be quality and properly maintained, and safety procedures need to be strictly implemented and followed.

It’s different when dealing with major multinational companies and local vendors, it’s not as consistent. You have to try to do the best you can. There’s certainly companies that will do anything for money, but is it done in a safe and professional manner? This is what you’re paying for at the end of the day.

EuroCham: From your work experience, both in the mines and at Benline, what needs to be improved?

Matthew: There is a definite need for modernisation and digitisation and it needs to be done the right way. We can see the different ways in which companies operate within the Kingdom, some with more focus on safety and compliance and some which circumvent these rules. However, overall I believe there is a significant push from the public and private sectors to bring companies up to international standards and protect the rights and lives of Cambodian workers and local communities.

The infrastructure of the country, specifically road improvements on National Roads 3 and 4 needs improvement, and we see a definite move by the government to replace this structure but it takes time and a lot of money. Due to the lack of solid infrastructure, including solid bridges and properly maintained roads that can take heavy cargo, we’re seeing a lot of difficulty around the country with moving heavy shipments. We don’t have bypass roads or additional highways, it’s just the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville expressway, and National Roads 3 and 4. There’s no other way to get cargo from Sihanoukville unless we’re boating it up. We are expecting water transport to become an option soon, connecting Phnom Penh Autonomous Port to Kampot via the Bassac River. This would take a lot of the strain off the current infrastructure and we’d be able to stop depending on the Mekong and Vietnam, which comes with a lot of extra fees and delays.

EuroCham: Many people have suggested that Customs needs to be improved. Could you describe why this is maybe the most talked-about problem facing importing/exporting companies?

Matthew: Logistics costs in Cambodia are higher than they are in most countries in Southeast Asia, which puts a strain on the volume of commodities and containers that we see passing in and out of Cambodia. We find that the general costs for clearance, scanning and inspection are higher than in competing countries. Other issues such as transparency, digitisation, and extra charges at the border crossings are still plaguing the government’s effort to stamp out illegal behaviour and increase compliant trading across the borders. With the introduction of digital systems such as ASYCUDA, the National Single Window, and the Best Trader Incentive Mechanism, we are starting to see the bigger companies and even mom-and-pop operators join the new systems.

EuroCham: How can digitised customs procedures help?

Matthew: With digitised customs procedures, Cambodia will become more attractive to international traders and manufacturers who rely on transperancy and compliance as part of their business structures and requirements of their home countries and the international community. We will also see a large reduction in the amount of document handling and couriers required to move hard copies to each border crossing or entry point in conjunction with the digital documents being sent via the online systems.

Getting rid of CAMCONTROL helped, and allowed agents to deal directly with customs officials through the ASCUYDA system. It eliminated a lot of middlemen. There is still an issue with sharing data as well. For example, if we have a truck enter Cambodia at the Snoul border with Vietnam, deliver goods, and then drop the container off at Sihanoukville to be shipped out, we need hard documents that trace the journey of the container. The system is not modernised enough and different departments don’t share this data, so it still needs to be done manually.

EuroCham: What developments on the horizon are you excited about that could relief some of the pressure on the transport and logistics sector?

Matthew: I am very excited to see Cambodia's customs and excise department modernise itself and with the support of the new government apply pressure on the border crossings and port of entry to increase compliance and back away from the old hard copy dependent systems of old. With the increase in modernisation we are hoping to see hard copies almost eliminated and processes being implemented for pre-arrival customs clearance, reductions in the amount of import tax, and exemptions made for new vehicles, trucks and trailers which are vital to keeping the country connected and supplied with everyday essentials and agricultural exports.

As I mentioned before, the road improvements and the new canal being built will help. It does seem like the Ministry of Public Works and Transport is moving in the right direction, and the Ministry of Mines and Energy appears to be offering encouraging signs for the development of new energy sources.  Overall, I’m excited for the potential that lies in opening more bidding opportunities up to the international market, becoming less dependent on China and pushing for dependable companies with strong international reputations.


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