Cambodia – An outsider’s view

Written by, Meera Siva, CFA

I am a person who leans on numbers. And the popular metrics about Cambodia were not enchanting. Being from India, my mental math was always comparing the two countries at the macro level and forming views. Cambodia’s population is 16 million versus India’s 1.6 billion – 100x lower. The exchange rate against the dollar is about 4000 Cambodian riel vs 80 for the Indian rupee – 50x weaker. But a short visit to the country showed the fallacy of my top-level numeric biases.

For one, I was very thrilled to see the lovely primary schools in even the remotest of locations. It was very quiet when the school was in session with full attendance of hundreds of kids. And the gardens, play area with creative designs and swings were indeed sweet to experience.

Two, it was exciting to see how the women are in the society. Young girls were happily driving scooters and women at home spoke to us – complete strangers.  The primary healthcare centres we went to had women as senior nurses and doctors.

Three, the warmth and enthusiasm of the people in the ecosystem to accommodate my requests was very heart warming. I had written to folks in Phonm Penh on October 24th about my November 25th visit. Some thought I was asking to meet the very next day and rather than be annoyed by such late request, checked on their time availability! These are senior people with very busy schedules and their gesture was very encouraging and touching. And last week, they all fit a group lunch in their schedule. I am very honoured by that beautiful inclusion.

Ok, I see myself making a list and counting again – habits die hard! Let me tell you a story from my trip instead.

During our field visit, we met an enterprising woman who has a pig farm. She spoke of how using piped drinking water for her pigs has made them healthy and helped her business. As eager investors, we wanted to see the water outlet and the sty. What she said next is something I will tell my grandkids one day. With the caveat that some parts of the message may have been lost in translation, the gist was that she felt we were not clean (to be fair, we were wet and muddy) and was afraid that her pigs may get an infection. I love this commitment to the core value of her enterprise. Long live the lucky well-loved piglets!

Numbers do not reveal the hidden potential of Cambodia. I saw a fertile greenfield – literally and figuratively. With a bit of resource support and a runway of stability, there can be lots of fruitful growth.     

Note: The author was on a 3-day business visit. Views are personal.

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