Cambodian rice expert produces ‘more with less’
When he introduced his novel rice production method to Cambodian farmers almost two decades ago, Yang Saing Koma had to battle skeptics who laughed at his idea. How could less irrigation and shallower planting result in higher yield?
Today, his System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is an official rice production method endorsed by the Cambodian government, credited for doubling the country’s total rice output in the two decades. And while other Asian nations still depend on rice imports, the country of almost 15 million is looking to expand its market internationally as grains constantly grow by Koma’s design.
“At first, no farmer wanted to do it. It was very strange for them. But you just select one who has the courage,” Koma said laughing, recalling how he started his program. “I just wanted to do something good for the country. I feel that I have done something, it’s very important. Of course, there are still many things to do. But I am very happy with what we’ve done so far. I think we’re very proud,” he added.
Only one seeding
The SRI method is quite simple in principle but great in intent: “producing more with less.”
Traditional rice farming, Koma said, involved planting several seedings deep in the ground “very close to each other” and filling the hole with a lot of water. The plots are fed with fertilizer to promote growth.
But Koma’s method, which he improved from a technique first practiced in the island country of Madagascar, follows an almost opposite procedure. “You go for planting only one seeding very shallow, bigger spacing, less water, more compost. The result, you get a very high yield,” he said.
Less water is better
It shifts the farmer’s “typical mindset,” the agronomist said. “Before, a farmer thought you need a lot of water … Actually, the rice grain is an aquatic plant. It just needs water, but actually, less water is better.”
“At first, a lot of farmers were laughing, a lot of them critical, because it was different from what they had seen for years. But they saw it was good, then it spread, they realized, Oooh … So you change their mindset completely,” Koma said.
He introduced SRI to 28 “reluctant” farmers in 2000, three years after he founded Cedac, now Cambodia’s top agricultural and rural development nongovernment organization.
“First, I discussed the idea, the principle of why too much water is a problem, why less water is better, why one seeding is better. The farmers understood, but they never tried it. Luckily, one of them said, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’ From the first farmer you get more and more farmers interested,” he said.
Some 140,000 farmer families are implementing SRI in 21 Cambodian provinces, helping boost total yield from 3.82 million tons in 2002 to 7.97 million tons in 2010.
Spreading the word
Koma also initiated the Cedac Enterprise for Development, which “links farmers directly to the market.” The social enterprise now runs 13 shops that sell locally produced organic stock, bringing goods from some 5,000 farmers directly to consumers.
“I saw that my country is poor and I was looking at how to build my country. I felt it was better to start with agriculture,” Koma said. Koma aims to spread SRI to all of Cambodia’s farmers, who make up roughly 66 percent of the country’s total population.
He has also traveled around Southeast Asia in the hopes of promoting the rice production method, from Thailand and Laos to Vietnam and Burma (Myanmar).
According to asianfarmers.org