Interview with Rajiv Pradhan, Swisscontact Country Director & Vice-Chairman of the AgriBusiness Committee

This week, we interviewed Rajiv Pradhan, Country Director for Swisscontact and Vice-Chairman of the AgriBusiness Committee. Rajiv has long been involved in the development sector in Cambodia, working to promote trade facilitation by supporting local SMEs through various initiatives and pushing for an agroecology transition in Cambodia that could transform the industry. Read on to learn more about the importance of this transition and don't forget to register for our event Rooting for Change: Smart Financing for Sustainable Agriculture this 1 December, where we'll welcome Rajiv as a moderator for a panel discussion.

EuroCham: You’ve worked at Swisscontact for close to 10 years in Cambodia, working in several areas, from trade facilitation to agroecology. What are some of your proudest achievements in your time here?

Rajiv: The key part to consider is that we work with a systems approach, we look at systems very closely and then we look at how we can engage with the private sector. This is how we work across our the three or four themes in our portfolio. We’re talking about skills, agroecology, soil, and trade.

Some of the proudest moments during my time at Swisscontact in Cambodia have been developing the upskilling project HoKa in close collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism. HoKa is an initiative within the Skills Development Program (SDP) of the SDC. The government has integrated this into its planning and HoKa is now being implemented in 10 provinces. We’re seeing low skill workers getting the training they need through this public-private mechanism, something that we are very proud of at Swisscontact. Working with colleagues like Mr. Ratana at MoT under the guidance of HE Pak Sokhom has just been brilliant. 

On the soil part, the formation of CASIC [Cambodia Conservation Agriculture and Sustainable Intensification Consortium] under MAFF has been a milestone for all of us involved in agroecology. We are equally indebted to the Government of Cambodia for recognizing our efforts by awarding three of us working on this. This is testament to the hard work of all our colleagues who believe in the cause.

We’ve also brought around 50 Swiss experts over the past 6 years to work in different enterprises and government institutions. This is one of our flagship initiatives and we’re quite proud to see this unfold, with the companies really valuing the expertise that is shared.

In summary, we pride ourselves on the holistic approaches we take, whether it’s on skills, agroecology, or the entrepreneurial ecosystem and work on the Private Sector Engagement. Besides the technical knowledge we bring in, I am proud that we’re recognized as one of the key integrators (working alongside all the organizations involved) supporting the development of those sectors.

EuroCham: During committee meetings and events, we’ve been talking a lot about transforming farming. What transformation needs to happen and why is it difficult to achieve?

Rajiv: In agriculture, we can think in terms of different revolutions that have shaped the sector, like the green revolution and now climate change is becoming another turning point. It’s not just about productivity, it’s about sustainable production that needs to be at the heart of everything. What matters is below the ground, not just above it. If we don’t take care of soil, the production might just stop at some point and you can’t just keep on giving fertilizer, keep on killing nutrients, we need a new way of green farming.

There is a lot of research behind this. However, it’s very difficult to change the mindset of farmers. They might say they’ve been using the same techniques for 100 years, so why should they change, especially if they don’t benefit for a few years? The transformation that is needed is to recognize a new way of farming. One of the approaches is agroecology and within that, conservation agriculture. Some of the methods recognized by FAO are no tilling, having the land under cover crops, and diversifying the cropping cycle. A new trend coming up in the rice sector is the alternate wetting and drying, or AWD, a water management practice leading to reduction of methane emissions from paddy fields.

Changing the mindset of large-scale farmers who have 300 hectares to work with is easier. For smallholder farmers who may only have two hectares each, this is a massive effort and is where the biggest challenge lies. Then of course, the biggest hurdle is how do you pay for this and who pays for this? I feel the companies are not yet ready to pay for this transition. So, for me, the key is to convince farmers that soil is more important than just productivity.

EuroCham: You will serve as a moderator for our upcoming Breakfast Talk Financing The Agroecology Transition. Who is responsible for funding this transition and what are some typical avenues for acquiring these funds?

Rajiv: This is the million-dollar question.

There are many potential transition financial mechanisms to explore, which can often be complementary. It leads us to many questions:

  • What do we finance: Climate change mitigation, climate change adaption, the practice transition, the impact on soil carbon content?
  • Who finances: The private sector for a better image, the government to reach their commitments, or individuals for philanthropy?
  • And how do we finance farmers: though premiums on the production, incentives for practice adoption, or in-kind material to support the farmers' transition?

Climate change solutions hinge on mitigation and adaptation. While carbon credits are the monetization mechanism for mitigation, we have not seen the monetization of adaptation or change of practice. So, we do need to look at financing this as well. We are working in Cambodia with the GDA on Dei Meas, which will hopefully come up with standards in maize and rice in Cambodia for payments for adaptation, which we also name as Eco Credits.

It makes sense to develop carbon farming projects with larger companies, but for smallholder farmers it can be more challenging, as I mentioned earlier. If in Australia 1000ha can be owned by one farmer, in Cambodia we will need to convince and support 1000 farmers for the same surface! Some private sector companies such as Acorn (Rabobank) support carbon projects with smallholder farmers, where 80 percent of funds generated from carbon credits go to the farmers themselves, about 10 percent goes to the project developer, and about 10 percent goes to the intermediary. The 10 percent to the project developer is not enough. Hence there is a need to see who finances the aggregation of smallholder farmers.

Aggregation in my view, whatever the financial mechanism, is central to the dynamic. Someone needs to do the work of aggregating farmers and offering technical support, and this is where I feel either development agencies or the government needs to get involved. It can be a public-private-partnership, but there is a role for the government to play here. Once the tipping point is reached where more and more farmers are adopting new practices, you don’t need the government’s involvement anymore, as new actors will emerge. For now, however, as far as I am aware, there is no financial model for how to profit on this transition. We could start looking at Impact Bonds or other blended finance models.

At the upcoming Breakfast Talk, we unveil the Eco-Credit pilot project Dei Meas, functioning with a practice-based reward system, as I mentioned earlier. We will then hear from institutions that are financing the transition and what products they have to offer. However, the aggregation payment will not be discussed, and I feel we should have another talk just around this, as this is quite key to solving the adaptation challenges.

EuroCham: You recently co-hosted the Transitioning Towards Agroecology and Regenerative Agriculture: A Contribution to Food Systems Transformation (TARASA23) workshop. What were the results of this workshop?

Rajiv: The workshop, organized by CASIC under MAFF, was a great success. It showed that soil agroecology is important, as well as holistic approaches to assist in this transition. We also wanted to show to others that Cambodia is working on soil in a more holistic manner.

It was a proud moment for all of us for TARASA23 to be graced by the presence of the First Lady, Lok Chumteav Pich Chanmony Hun Manet who attended the agricultural innovation fair of TARASA during her visit to Siem Reap. Speaking on that occasion, she expressed her interest in and appreciation for new agricultural research projects in the areas of food safety and security and climate change mitigation.

Along with CIRAD and other institutions such as FAO, 4p1000, Agroecology Coalition, CSAM/UNESCAP, we supported CASIC to get key regional and international coalitions and stakeholders to join, including representatives from FAO in Cambodia, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and the ASEAN Secretariat, as well as H.E. Jacques Pellet, Ambassador of France to Cambodia. I believe we had representatives from nearly all the ASEAN countries during TARASA.

Especially considering that the ASEAN Secretariat was present, we hope TARASA can be the key agroecology event in the Asia Pacific and ASEAN regions. It could be tied to the ASEAN chairmanship and be held alongside the ASEAN Summit. This was also the recommendation of TARASA23. I think it would be great as a showcase and example for the rest of the region to follow.  This helps to put Cambodia on the map on agroecology that is being practiced in a holistic manner.

EuroCham: As we near 2024, what goals are you setting to achieve, at Swisscontact and as the vice-chairman of the Agribusiness Committee?

Rajiv: Along with Khmer Enterprise, we are currently preparing for the annual Cambodia Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Strengthening Conference (CAMESCO) 2023 event coming up on December 8, 2023. This event will bring together actors in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cambodia and some from the region. We are expecting over 150 people to attend this second edition of CAMESCO. New instruments to support impact investors to blend with their investments will be discussed during CAMESCO23.  

In the area of soil, along with CIRAD, we will work closely with CASIC to try and see if we can present Cambodia agriculture as a sector that produces products with soil in mind. This can be a comparative advantage for Cambodia. It appears that Vietnam and Thailand are focused on keeping prices low hence healthy soil might not be the priority now, and this is where Cambodia could sneak in with the advantage of higher quality soil, and climate-friendly techniques. In the years to come, this could become a real competitive advantage.

Annual Platinum Partners

Annual Gold Partners

Founding Chambers & National Chapters