A year ago, no one in the Cambodian government – or anywhere in Southeast Asia, really – had ever heard of the Cambodian Aquaculturist Association (CAA).
“Because it didn’t exist,” Jim Hershey said. “Now they represent more than 300 fish farmers and sellers, feed mill operators and other people who are key to aquaculture.”
Whether it’s working on policy issues to help farmer members organize and grow a developing market or providing some financial assistance to a fish hatchery that lost nearly all of its stock in last fall’s severe flooding, the start-up association is already organized and engaged, said Hershey, who is the American Soybean Association/World Initiative for Soy in Human Health (ASA/WISHH) chief of party for the USDA-funded Commercialization of Aquaculture for Sustainable Trade (CAST) – Cambodia project.
CAST has helped the CAA get started with funding and training. The CAA’s official launch took place on Sept. 22, 2020, and, within two months it had more than 160 members, along with a fervent following on social media. It also quickly got the attention of Cambodia’s minister of agriculture, who created a fish promotion committee after listening to some of the CAA’s concerns.
“It’s happening organically,” Hershey said. “This association is getting involved in all levels of Cambodian aquaculture. It needs to promote the product. The association is helping its members become better at what they do for a living, to be better farmers.”
While this organic growth has proven the need and desire for such an organization, there is still much for the CAA and its leadership to learn and build. That’s why WISHH contracted Ag Management Solutions (AMS) of Mankato, Minn., to create an Association Toolkit that the CAA and other burgeoning member-driven associations can use to get started and stay on task.
AMS, which manages the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council, among other groups, put together a seven-chapter handbook that covered association start-up, strategic planning, board of directors training, membership development and engagement, communications, industry relations, and understanding of an association and its value.
“It’s the secret sauce,” said AMS’s Eric Wenberg, who is the executive director of the Specialty Soya and Grains Alliance. “In a nutshell, our approach and recommendation to associations in newly opened economies is to strongly consider using the business instincts of your board to develop strong financial plans.”
Hershey said he likes that term, “secret sauce,” because the Toolkit is very specific to ag- and producer-driven associations.
“We knew that we wanted to create an association when we developed the CAST proposal to submit to USDA,” Hershey said in a video interview from his home in Phnom Penh. “That was one strategy among a number of strategies to develop an ag value chain over here. But when you dive in you realize how big the task is.”
The goal, Hershey said, is sustainability – of the association. The CAST project, which began in 2018, lasts five years. When that wraps up, the CAA – whose members include fish farmers and buyers, feed mills and other important links in the value chain – needs to be in a position, financially and otherwise, to thrive on its own.
“We don’t care if 10 years from now nobody knows what CAST meant,” Hershey said. “But they need to know who the CAA is.”
The tool box
The Toolkit, which was delivered to WISHH just before the CAA’s official launch event, can help build that foundation and can continue to be a reference guide over time.
“(The Toolkit) starts with startup, and the men and women who lead CAA have done most of the checklist already,” Hershey said. “They had registered with the local government, worked on the logo, selected the proper title of the organization – stuff like that.
“But that checklist is invaluable for somebody starting with a blank page. … It actually was a confidence-booster for CAA because they could look at the checklist and say, ‘Hey, we’re well on our way.’ And, ‘You know, this isn’t such a daunting task, trying to create something from absolute scratch.’”
The Association Toolkit was written by the AMS communications staff in conjunction with company executives and other professionals from the various areas, such as membership, training and industry relations.
“Our team was excited to share our expertise with WISSH and our friends in Cambodia,” AMS CEO Tom Slunecka said. “Despite these challenging times, AMS continues growing as we enter our fourth year, and it’s encouraging to see other associations validating and seeking out our work.”
The CAA is on to strategic planning now, although, like many associations around the world, progress has been slowed or changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, membership is growing, so they’ll be diving into that chapter soon, too, and making sure they tick all the boxes.
Since the aquaculture industry doesn’t stop to let a new association catch up, CAA is learning as its growing. People are taking notice, though, and CAA already has scored some big wins.
Cambodia’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Veng Sakhon presided over CAA’s inaugural meeting in September. That event also included CAA’s first trade show, linking buyers with sellers, and drew the attention of several media outlets, including the Khmer Times. Media coverage led to almost-daily inquiries about membership over the association’s first couple of months and boosted CAA’s social media presence.
“(CAST) manages CAA’s Facebook, and we have a page, too, and do technical training and promote good aquaculture,” Hershey said. “But when people discovered there was a (CAA) page, that’s what the Cambodians gravitated toward. That’s what they wanted to join.”
Buyers and sellers
After extreme monsoon rains affected several CAA farmer-members, including Phal Veasna in Battambang province, whose nine fish ponds and hatchery station with four fish species were completely flooded, the association decided to show leadership and take action to help with personal financial support.
On Jan. 5, His Excellency Veng Sakhon observed the manufacturing of U.S. soy-based feeds during a tour of AgriMaster, the country’s first factory for aquaculture feeds, a CAA member and an ASA/WISHH strategic partner. In 2020, AgriMaster purchased nearly 12,900 metric tons of AGP soybean meal, which was shipped to southeast Asia through the Pacific Northwest.
With CAST’s help, CAA also began to facilitate technical training for members at Royal University of Agriculture in Phnom Penh.
“Those types of things are new to them, and those are the things CAST does to build the value chain,” Hershey said. “But if the association watches us and figures out how to do it themselves in a Cambodian way and figures out show to raise the money to do it, that’s the goal.”
According to WISHH, Cambodia has approximately 46,000 aquaculturalists, as well as 895 community ponds and 309 fish hatcheries and nurseries.
WISHH, which is supported by 23 qualified state soybean boards, including the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council and the United Soybean Board, is working on aquaculture initiatives in Asia as well as Africa. Hershey said he envisions AMS’s Association Toolkit will be used in other countries down the line.
Back in Cambodia, Hershey said, “The market is served best by a strong association. An association links buyers and sellers. I fully envision a long relationship between Cambodian fish feed operations and U.S. soybean growers and U.S. soy exporters. … We fully expect Cambodia to gain its rightful place in Southeast Asian markets for U.S. soy.”