Seeds of Change: San Davy's transformation with AGROW in Cambodia
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Seeds of Change: San Davy's transformation with AGROW in Cambodia

This blog was written by Tanja Kisslinger, Advocacy and Communications Technical Advisor at VWB/VSF in reflection of a trip taken to Cambodia in February 2024 to document our Agriculture-based Growth and Resilience Opportunities for Women (AGROW) program.

In the heart of Battambang province, Cambodia, San Davy, a 34-year-old mother and farmer, is cultivating more than just crops — she's growing a future for her family. Living in Baydamram Village with her two children, mother, and grandmother, San Davy's life is a testament to resilience, underscored by support from AGROW, a program aimed at empowering women through environmentally sustainable food production and farm diversification.

Economic Migration and the Quest for Stability

Many Cambodians, including women, seek better employment opportunities abroad due to limited job prospects at home. A significant number of these migrants, like San Davy, move to Thailand where they find work in sectors such as garment manufacturing. The Thai garment industry is substantial, employing about 850,000 workers, 70% of whom are female. Many of these workers are migrants from neighboring countries, including Cambodia. This migration is driven by the search for better wages but often comes at the cost of separation from family and challenging working conditions.

San Davy and her husband worked together in a Thai factory until the birth of their second child. At that point, San Davy returned to Cambodia to care for her children and extended family while her husband remained in Thailand, working in the factory. This decision marked a significant turning point in her life, highlighting the difficult choices many migrant workers must make between economic opportunity and family cohesion.

San Davy in one of the large vegetable gardens she has established at her homestead in Baydamram Village, Banan District, Cambodia.

The Shift from Migrant Labor to Sustainable Farming

Struggling under the burden of supporting her family with only the modest sum her husband could send each month, San Davy’s initial means of income to support her family was a small home-based laundry service—hardly enough to meet their basic needs and afford education for her children.

The introduction to AGROW marked a significant pivot in San Davy's life. The program provided her with training in sustainable vegetable production and cricket farming, along with a starter kit for cricket cultivation. She learned how to create nutritious food and sustainable income from both crickets and agriculture. Embracing these new skills, San Davy transformed her modest plot into a thriving hub of biodiversity. 

Mastering Friendly Agriculture

San Davy now grows a rich variety of crops including Chinese spinach, garlic, green onions, and lemongrass, complemented by fruit-bearing trees like papaya, banana, and coconut. Her approach to farming is a model of "friendly agriculture" — she maintains a diverse crop mix which naturally keeps pests at bay, enriching the soil and maintaining ecological balance.

San Davy carefully waters her 3rd cycle of crickets in an AGROW supplied basin.

San Davy collecting organic produce from her garden.

She is particularly adept at crop rotation, changing her crops each harvest cycle every three to four months, which maximizes soil nutrient use and enhances plant health. Moreover, San Davy strategically plants mint throughout her garden and around its perimeter, utilizing its strong aroma as a natural pest deterrent. This method of natural pest management not only protects her crops but also adds to their appeal at the market, where her organic, pesticide-free produce is highly sought after.

“I once relied solely on my small laundry business, which could not meet our needs,” San Davy reflects. “AGROW opened new doors for me. Now, I manage a thriving farm where we produce crickets and a variety of vegetables, ensuring not just sustenance but a stable educational future for my children. I am so happy that I don't have to work in Thailand anymore. Because of my farming, I can stay near my children and care for them myself."

Community Impact and Leading by Example

San Davy diligently and carefully improves her farm in small increments whenever she is able. First, with a bit of extra income, she built she built the shelter in which her cricket basins are housed. Next, when her income allowed, she bought a  motorized bike so that she could haul the water she needed for her vegetable gardens (rather than carrying 40 heavy jugs of water each day, as she used to).

In this quiet and determined way, San Davy’s influence extends beyond her farm. In a region where women often face significant barriers to economic participation and leadership, she stands as an inspiration. Her success in agriculture and cricket farming has not only improved her family’s quality of life but has also enhanced food security and promoted environmental conservation within her village.

San Davy sharing plants and natural agricultural techniques with a neighbor in her village.

Her neighbor, Sokha, another participant in the AGROW program, regards San Davy as a role model. “Her determination and hard work inspire us all. She shows us what we can achieve for ourselves and our families.”

Challenging Gender Inequality in Cambodia

Despite her successes, San Davy’s journey reflects broader systemic challenges faced by women in rural Cambodia. Many communities are still entrenched in poverty, with a substantial number of Cambodians living on less than $3 per day. Women and girls, in particular, lack access to essential opportunities for education, health, and representation – more than 70% of Cambodian women are in vulnerable employment.

The economic landscape for women is further complicated by migration to urban centers to participate in the US $5 billion garment industry. Given inadequate protections for labor rights and pervasive gender discrimination, women’s potential to fully participate in and benefit from economic growth is stymied.

Empowering Women Through AGROW

AGROW's initiative is crucial in this context. Over the next three years, AGROW aims to reach 4,260 small-scale farmers like San Davy with training and capacity building, focusing on sustainable agricultural practices and farm diversification. This program not only aims to enhance food security but also to empower women, giving them the tools to achieve economic independence and challenge the cycles of poverty and dependency.

Looking to the Future

Today, San Davy is more than a farmer; she's a symbol of hope and change in her community. Beyond her crops and crickets, she represents a larger movement toward sustainable development and gender equality in rural Cambodia. Her transformation from labor migrant to community leader underscores the importance of targeted support, like AGROW, for women in rural economies.

Though she once felt powerless, San Davy is now dreaming of the future: “Though I am illiterate, I am now able to ensure my children will have the opportunities that I did not. My plans are to expand my cricket and vegetable farming. This way, we will be stable and my husband can return to live with us and never have to migrate again. We will finally live together as a family.”

San Davy with her 5-year old daughter and 81-year old grandmother, as they begin preparations for the family's evening meal.

AGROW is a 3-year program aimed at enhancing the resilience of women and girls in three districts of Cambodia’s Battambang province through animal, human, and environmental health (One Health) initiatives, and is generously funded by Global Affairs Canada. Learn more here.

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