Cambodia is undergoing rapid economic development and mass urbanization. The country’s economy is expected to grow by 6.5% in 2023, according to the Asian Development Bank.
This transformation comes at a heavy socioeconomic cost. A high dependence on carbon-based fuels contributes to intensifying air and water pollution, and natural resources are being depleted at an alarming rate. The International Organization for Migration says that because Cambodia is geographically vulnerable to environmental shocks, the country is approaching a humanitarian crisis.
Startups in the country are pursuing solutions to these problems. From treating wastewater and recycling plastics to developing distribution systems for renewable energy, these startups’ strategies are framed as steps to give Cambodia a more sustainable future.
The need for intervention
Cambodia ranked 140th out of 181 countries on the World Bank Group’s 2020 ND-GAIN Index, which measures countries’ vulnerability to climate change, with lower scores meaning weaker resilience.
Cambodia’s environmental condition is especially worrying since 76% of its population resides in rural areas, according to the World Bank Group. Climate stressors disproportionately affect vulnerable populations and destabilize traditional livelihoods. UNICEF has warned that children are at particularly high risk.
In response, Cambodia’s minister of mines and energy, Suy Sem, said in June 2021 that the country is committed to stimulating the development and usage of clean technology, and “deliver a more affordable and sustainable energy future by reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate change.”
Safeguarding Cambodia’s water supply
The lack of access to clean water and substandard wastewater treatment is becoming a major concern for Cambodian authorities. Unfortunately, the general population and corporations within its borders remain insufficiently aware of the need to conserve the country’s water resources, or do not commit to safe wastewater management.
According to a 2020 report by German development agency GIZ, 80% of the capital’s wastewater is discharged directly from sewerage systems into Boeung Choeung Ek Lake. During heavy rainfall, flooding occurs and sewage flows into low-lying areas. Furthermore, only around 20% of rural residents have access to clean water.
Founded in 2018, SUdrain is a Cambodian startup that provides a simple, yet effective solution to inefficient wastewater management. The innovation comes in the form of an eco-friendly biological filter that is created from salvaged coconut husks. This biofilm can be installed in sewage pipes, and works to recycle wastewater into clean water, which can then be used for crop irrigation. The biofilm can be broken down and turned into fertilizer after three to five years of use.
By filtering their wastewater, SMEs that operate in sectors such as manufacturing or agriculture can use SUdrain’s technology to reduce their environmental impact. At present, the company collaborates with Australian company Tiger Water Solutions on an ongoing wastewater treatment project for Kampot Eco Resort.
A solution in renewable fuel and energy
In 2020, 60% of Cambodia’s energy supply consisted of fossil fuels like coal and oil, according to Suy Sem. Burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gasses and exacerbates global warming, while air pollution increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer.
Phnom Penh-based tech startup Okra Solar aims to introduce a greener alternative to energy sources. Founded in 2016, the company has developed a solution that combines solar panels with IoT hardware and AI software, forming “mesh-grids” that can provide electricity to clusters of buildings. Unlike mini-grids that rely on a central power source, mesh-grids are flexible and distribute equal energy regardless of distance from the solar panels.
Okra’s panels can be installed on rooftops in rural areas, creating localized networks that share solar energy. Houses are interconnected using a low voltage cable, and algorithms redistribute power to where it’s needed most. The mesh-grids supply 1.2kW per household, easily powering lights and home appliances. Essentially, Okra provides low-cost power distribution for residential networks.
The company primarily operates on a B2B model, providing its kits to energy companies. It also offers a SaaS platform called Okra Harvest, which is a data automation and management tool. Harvest processes data from Okra’s hardware and detects anomalies such as loose wires or power theft. The platform also offers profitability projections and performs analysis for grid optimization.
Another company encouraging the usage of renewable energy is Cambodian-based biodigester startup ATEC. The majority of families in rural areas still use biomass for cooking, and ATEC is supporting the transition to modern, energy-efficient kitchens. ATEC’s biodigester converts animal manure and kitchen waste into methane gas for cooking, producing organic fertilizer as a by-product. These biodigesters help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, decrease chemical fertilizer usage, and keep kitchens free of hazardous soot and wood smoke.
ATEC claims that its biodigesters have produced more than 552.8 million liters of biogas (gaseous fuel) and 28,400 tons of organic fertilizer since 2015.
Clearing landfills by recycling plastic waste
According to the UNDP, 10 million plastic bags are used in Phnom Penh each day. Often thrown away after they are used just once, these plastic sacks are dumped in landfills or into the sea. They take up to 1,000 years to decompose.
With a mission to reduce plastic use, Cleanbodia manufactures biodegradable bags made of cassava starch, a material from a root vegetable grown throughout Southeast Asia. The bags have a tagline printed on them—“I’m a plant”—and are as strong as plastic bags. Cleanbodia’s bags are greener alternatives that break down in less than five years in water or soil. Cleanbodia also produces compostable bags from cassava starch mixed with a biodegradable polymer. Once buried, the bag converts into a biomass that can be used for farming.
Cleanbodia founder Kai Kuramoto stated that his company’s main goal is not to replace plastic bags, but to drastically reduce the dependence on products that harm the environment.
Similarly, Eco-Plastic is a Cambodian startup founded to address the country’s waste problem. Eco-Plastic’s research led to the creation of Plastic Asphalt Concrete (PAC), a durable material made from a combination of plastic scrap and bitumen, a black mixture of hydrocarbons used for paving roads. PAC incorporates discarded plastic into road construction materials that are more affordable and stronger than traditional asphalt concrete.
An uphill battle toward sustainability
Although the importance of green technology and renewable resources is gaining traction in Cambodia, the country’s startup scene is still new and domestically focused.
Funding for investments remains limited. Startup founders often rely on personal networks and public grants for new projects. Okra’s investors include French multinational company Schneider Electric, while ATEC raised an undisclosed sum in a deal with US-based impact investor Beneficial Returns.
Other available resources include programs such as the USAID’s Development Innovations Venture project, which helps technology companies employ innovative practices to address Cambodia’s development challenges. Locally, the Cambodian Angel Investors Network (CAIN) has committed to investing in startups, focusing on the service and technology sectors with a modest but significant USD 5 million fund.
Going forward, a healthy entrepreneurship ecosystem needs to be developed to expand Cambodia’s base of locally founded businesses. Support for domestic enterprises must be prioritized to create a resilient, sustainable, and diversified Cambodian economy.