Earthworms encourage sustainable farming in Kampong Chhnang
Sothearath welcoming a group of young green innovators to the worm farm.
The general attitude towards earthworms always seems to be one of distaste and revolt. They burrow in the soil and are awkward to watch but hide a surprising benefit - earthworms have the ability to decompose and break down organic waste, which may help to eliminate greenhouse gasses. Such a small creature holds the power to influence sustainable farming practices, and this is exactly what Sothearath Sok has tapped upon for her business venture, JUNLEN, which she founded in 2018.
Organic waste can be overlooked as a producer of greenhouse gasses in farming, and farmers in the Kampong Chhnang province may not be aware of the effects that waste and chemicals can have on their crops.
Through her research, Sothearath saw an opportunity to educate farmers on sustainable farming practices whilst helping them to earn more by raising earthworms.
Sothearath saw the value in harvesting vermicompost, a combination of earthworm by-products from organic waste, that has high nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels to improve soil structure and increase water retention.
Providing Opportunities to Those who Deserve Them
Innovative farmers are the ideal farmers that JUNLEN is looking for.
Sothearath saw an opportunity to enlist the help of farmers in her community to help reduce the cost of logistical demands of her business while providing them with more stable incomes. JUNLEN acts as the bridge between the farmers that supply the product and buyers, which helps to avoid unstable prices and protects farmers from exploitation.
Sothearath believes that contract farming, a type of farming model carried out according to an agreement between a buyer and farmers, is the most sustainable model to ensure farmer incomes. In addition to this, if more farmers adopted digital technologies, there could be even more of an increase in the pay farmers take home.
In Cambodia, young people have the potential to create new technology that can cater to the needs of community farmers. Sothearath hopes to empower both farmers and young people, as she feels entrepreneurship and agritech go hand in hand with sustainable farming practices.
Exploring New Avenues for Growth
Khmer Muslim households gather to cook for their traditional ceremony.
Sothearath has come a long way from when she first learned about the agricultural landscape in Southeast Asia. She initially volunteered with youth organizations during high school before gaining more knowledge with The Harpswell Foundation, allowing her to travel the region. This furthered her interest in future agricultural trends and led her to learning about earthworms.
“I realize in life as a human being, we are afraid of doing a lot of things while we know nothing about it,” She says, speaking to her own experience of overcoming her fear of earthworms to see their value to the environment and the farming community. She purposefully chose to work with the most vulnerable Khmer Muslim farmers, who lacked farming knowledge and equipped them with the knowledge to capitalize on earthworm decomposition economically. Through these efforts, she diverted them away from fearing earthworms and helped them view them as a beneficial resource.
Making a Difference as a Woman Entrepreneur
Since her early developments in the operations of JUNLEN, she has moved on to building partnerships and marketing her company across Cambodia. As a woman, she notes that gender bias is still something that needs to be addressed in the industry, especially in a developing country like Cambodia. The stigma towards women entrepreneurs will take time to be eliminated, but she has taken this in her stride and balanced it with her passion to keep sharing with and motivating the next generation of women. She encourages young women to take control of their goals and think about the bigger picture and what impact they can make for their families, communities, country, and the world.
She hopes that through her efforts, JUNLEN can be become a sustainable agriculture development firm and she remains motivated by the struggles of smallholder farmers that arise from climate change and waste management.
With her earthworms, she hopes to keep providing for these farmers and positively impact their lives, bringing them out of poverty to become more self-sufficient.