From a ban on fundraising on social media to a sharp decline in international aid entering Cambodia in recent years, native Kosal Yann is no stranger to the struggles of a non-government organisation in the Indochinese nation that still sees almost 19% of its inhabitants living under the poverty threshold.
In the very beginning, most of the NPO’s efforts were focused on co-funding basic infrastructure for rural communities who were largely detached from larger settlements—closing the gap through transportation was the fastest way for many of these villages to earn a living as locals could then travel easily to more developed location to find work.
“For example, Mekong Plus would fork out 30% of the cost to build a bridge that would eliminate the need for dangerous river crossings,” Bernard explained.
Since then, Mekong Plus has turned ‘homegrown’ in Cambodia, transforming itself into a localised NGO under the name of Community Advance Organisation (CAO).
Today, the core tenets of CAO remain relatively unchanged—aiming to improve rural lives in Cambodia through community projects focusing on agronomy, health, environment, education, and more.
Rural communities detached from national roads
Growing up in Kandal province that surrounds Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, Kosal enjoyed a relatively carefree and comfortable childhood in a town that lies along a national road that connects Cambodia and Vietnam.
“Clean water and electricity was not a problem in our village,” Kosal related.
More than half of her classmates in highschool went on to university—starkly contrasted to a national average of only 13% in 2021. The number becomes even more dismal if only girls are considered.
Hopping on a bus to Rumdoul Village in Svay Rieng Province where she joined Mekong Plus’ team as a livestock project coordinator in 2009 opened her eyes to the harsh reality of life in Cambodia’s rural areas.
“There were no street lights at night, [and] farmers have to charge batteries in the day [using petrol generators] to power lights at night,” she explained, while elaborating about the urge to leave despite having only arrived for less than a day.
Her heart saw quick change after getting to know the local community, volunteers, and difficulties faced by locals.
Her stay at Rumduol now exceeds a decade, and she often invites her family to spend time with her to understand more about the lives of rural Cambodians.
Livestock-focused projects bringing locals out of poverty
Together with Mekong Plus, Kosal’s first milestone was developing various ‘livestock banks’ to help jumpstart animal husbandry in rural families who cannot afford buying their first animals.
The strategy is straightforward and effective—families in need receive a female cow, along with training to understand fundamentals such as caretaking techniques and the importance of livestock vaccination.
“After a cycle of 4 years, [the beneficiary] farmers donate two baby cows to another family in need,” she adds.
Similar initiatives for other livestock such as poultry and swine help different families find the right match for their living conditions and level of commitment. The diversity of livestock choices was also tantamount in the effort to help many swine farmers transition to other types of livestock when the swine flu hit Svay Rieng province hard shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Depending on the availability of funds and budget, Kosal’s efforts as Mekong Plus’ livestock project manager between 2009 to 2020 helped CAO achieve yet another milestone—each beneficiary village receiving at least two workshops annually in agronomy, health sanitation and livestock management, giving rural locals access to valuable knowledge that effectively reduces the occurrence of preventable death by illness and lack of nutrition in both people and animals.
Biogas and fertilisers produced from animal waste also help lower living costs in the Svay Rieng thanks to innovations and efforts led by CAO.
Empowering women at work and children in schools
Partially triggered by a loss of livelihoods due to the swine flu pandemic, Kosal began to work closely with Mekong Quilts, Mekong Plus’ sister social enterprise that focuses on handicraft and fabric work for the underprivileged women of the region.
As a mother of three who spends most of her time away from her children, Kosal understands the struggles and stress faced by women who need to work far away from home.
Today, several papier-mâché and quilting workshops exist in and around Rumduol district, producing countless souvenirs, quilts and wearables inspired by Cambodia’s beautiful Khmer sarong ‘batik’ prints. Beyond availability of work, female artisans who are now able to remain close to their families thanks to village-based workgroups.
Primary school-focused education projects and scholarship programmes inspired by Mekong Plus efforts in Vietnam also became an important direction for the Community Advance Organisation (CAO) under Kosal’s lead.
Despite the lack of resources, more than five primary schools in and near Svay Rieng now practise a daily dental-hygiene exercise that involves the entire student bodies after class hours. Every child owns a cup and toothbrush thanks to contributions from donors and sales of Mekong Quilts’ merchandise.
How you can help Mekong Plus and CAO change lives
Despite recent improvements to roads and infrastructure in Svay Rieng Province, it remains historically an area detached from the main distributaries of the grand Mekong.
Burdened geographically by a lack of arable water, the province relies heavily on animal husbandry even when medicine and vaccines remain scarce—often a 20-kilometre motorbike ride to the town centre.
Kosal Yann is now the head project manager for a family of projects at CAO, but remains true to her roots by active participation in livestock-related operations—an important stepping stone to human development in the region.
“It is our priority that they [,the children,] can stay in school healthily for better opportunities in life!” She exclaimed.
Visit Mekong Plus and CAO’s website to discover a wide range of beneficiaries you can support to alleviate the severity of poverty in the region while increasing income and education opportunities for the rural families of Cambodia.