Updates from EWMBA IBD – Team WCS in Cambodia

Berkeley-Haas Part-Time MBA students Timothy Black, Henry Lawrence, Alex Lin and Ennis Olson are working on an IBD project with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Cambodia.

Our team had the opportunity to work with Sansom Mlup Prey (SMP) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to evaluate the future financial sustainability of Ibis Rice. WCS started SMP in 2009 with the goal of helping farmers work their land using methods that protect the wildlife in their region. In particular, protection of the critically endangered Ibis – Cambodia’s national bird. By following farming methods that protect the habitat, SMP purchases rice from these farmers at a premium. This organic fragrant jasmine rice (phka malis) is then sold at a premium on the market as Ibis Rice – the only Wildlife Friendly rice in Cambodia.

Since it’s beginning, SMP has grown to distribution in over 100 markets, hotels, and restaurants in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Our goal was to evaluate the financial sustainability of the Ibis Rice program so WCS can understand at what point in time it can function as a standalone business with no dependency on grants or donors. To help SMP achieve financial independence we set about understanding their operations, rice farming and milling practices, and their sales channels to look for opportunities. We prepared our day of arrival presentation and highlighted the efforts we planned to dive into deeper during our two weeks in Cambodia.

Siem Reap

After 25 hours, 3 planes, and 4 airports we landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia – the home of Angkor Wat. As we walked out of the airport into the humid, wet rainy season of Cambodia, we found our driver amongst the crowd and walked towards the minivans in the parking lot. Then we walked past the minivans to where our tuk tuk awaited. Somehow we managed to fit into a single tuk tuk along with all of our luggage!

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As the rain started, we piled in, our driver put on a plastic poncho, and we were off – dodging cars, motorcycles, pedestrians, and the occasional wildlife on the way to our hotel. Our adventure had already begun.

The next day we had to ourselves to explore the temples of Siem Reap – in particular Angkor Wat – the largest religious monument in the world. SMP arranged an opportunity for us to take in the awe-inspiring temples before we dove into work with our clients. We took in the sunset on the outskirts of Angkor Wat where it was already 80 degress at 5:45am!

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Angkor Wat at sunrise

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Temple – with Australian photo bomber in the background!

The following day we were greeted at the hotel by SMP’s delivery driver Mr. Samoeun. SMP has only one form of transportation – a remorque – and that became our mode of transport all week as well! A reqmorque is a motorcycle with a flatbed attached on the back. With the sun beating down at 95 degrees with 70% humidity, our very sweaty team piled into the remorque and headed off to the office.

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The Remorque

The last stretch of road to the office was unpaved and quite muddy from the rains of the previous evening. Our vehicle got stuck and was unable go any further, despite Samoeun’s valiant efforts. We hopped out of the remorque and after several attempts was able to free the wheels from the red, muddy clay. We tried our luck and got back on only to get stuck again – get out, free the remorque and try again! We navigated the last 50 yards or so on foot and arrived very hot with slightly muddy shoes, but in one piece. It was an unexpected, but interesting first trip to the office – and all before 9am!

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Haas and SMP together for the first time

After a warm welcome from Chinda (SMP’s Sale and Operations Coordinator) and Sochitra (SMP’s Accounting Coordinator), and some introductory discussion on Ibis Rice, we accompanied them on a round of daily deliveries to several of SMP’s customers in the area.  It was insightful to see their delivery process as well as learning more about SMP’s customer relationship management. But the adventure wasn’t over yet.

As part of our delivery ride, the client took us to the old rice mill they had used until several years ago when they switched to a mill near Phnom Penh. When we arrived, we expected to see the sacks of rice fililng the warehouse. What we hadn’t expected was our client saying, “there is also a crocodile farm out back – want to see it?” As we made our way around back we passed the crocodile jerky being dried in the sun.

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The next several days we had the opportunity to meet with SMP’s customers and learn about their support for Ibis Rice. We also met with previous customers who no longer purchased Ibis Rice so we could better understand the market and needs of their customers. During the first week we learned a great deal of information not only about Ibis Rice as a product, but also about the operations from orders to deliveries, and the relationship management with customers. We ended our week in Phnom Penh, where SMP and WCS’s main offices are located and spent the next week diving deeper into operations and analysis.

Phnom Penh

Everyone we met in Siem Reap mentioned the traffic of Phnom Penh. Arriving late at night for our final week, we immediately saw what they were talking about. It took our drivers over two hours to get to the airport which is only 10km from the WCS office. Luckily, we stayed close enough to the office that we could walk each morning from our hotel. We set to work immediately meeting with staff and learning more about the work WCS does in Cambodia and the importance of Ibis Rice and SMP to fulfilling their conservation goals.

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We spent the final week really digging in to the data, financials, and marketing opportunities we see for Ibis Rice. Throughout the week we had the opportunity to meet other companies making rice products and even had a few $1 beers at a local bar with a group of expats that work in Cambodian agriculture.

Most of our last week was spent working through the details with SMP and better understanding their sales, marketing, and operations data. Chinda, as Sales and Operations coordinator, was an invaluable resource throughout our stay. Everyone at WCS/SMP was supportive and helpful  throughout the week with additional data, insights, rides to interviews. They also kept us going with Cambodian snacks – we were treated to bananas 3-ways: small banana, medium banana, and chek chean (fried banana!)

The last two days we hunkered down to put together the financial sustainability analysis for Ibis Rice. But it wasn’t smooth sailing just yet. The evening before our final presentation, we were wrapping up our analysis and getting ready to start our presentation. While typing away and engrossed in spreadsheets our team didn’t realize our hotel room was flooding! The water seeped into the hallway and the room across the hall as well. Luckily there was one extra room available at the hotel and we were able to move. Within the hour we were back to our report and getting excited for the final presentation.

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The final day we gathered WCS and SMP staff together and delivered our final report on Ibis Rice. We felt great about the work we accomplished and everyone was excited to hear what we thought about the future of Ibis Rice. Everyone was so engaged in conversation we continued to discuss opportunities for SMP for nearly an hour after the presentation! After we presented, Ross Sinclair – WCS Country Director for Cambodia – invited us to his home down the street where we enjoyed a few beers, cocktails, and pizza to finish out an incredible two weeks.

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One last photo with Chinda and the team!

We were struck throughout our experience by the warmth and hospitality of Cambodia. Regardless of how much or how little they had, the local Cambodians touched us with their remarkable kindness and optimism. There is no more perfect a metaphor for Cambodia than its national bird the Ibis. Through the work of WCS and SMP the country is preserving its resources, the farmers’ lives are being improved, and the Ibis bird is beginning to thrive in the communities growing Ibis Rice. We are all incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with these organizations and to help them continue the success of Ibis Rice for years to come!

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