Episode 6: Environmental and Technological Entrepreneurship in Cambodia

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Cambodia is a developing country with a growing economy, whose newest generations have the opportunity to thrive. We speak with Rithy Thul about his personal growth and experiences to become a successful entrepreneur, and his ambition to encourage young Cambodians to advance through the use of technology and reforestation.

 

Rithy is a young Cambodian entrepreneur who co-founded SmallWorld Venture, which focuses on investing in & supporting early stage team-startups and redefined their goal toward building tech-startups and aligning with the green business movement. He also co-founded Codingate.com, a local software development firm specializing in mobile and web applications.

Since 2016, Rithy has led a blockchain and decentralized application research and a development project at SmallWorld Research Lab. Now called KOOMPI OS, this R&D project aims to apply blockchain applications to broader markets and industries. During the same time, he co-founded two other projects; VitaminAir.org a reforestation project which is currently piloting on a 100 hectares estate located in the western side of Cambodia. And Selendra.org is a blockchain platform for ownership and digital assets tokenization built with Substrate Framework.

Learn more about Rithy Thul


 

Transcript

 

Rithy T

Our goal is to reforest Cambodia not because we have to do it by ourselves alone, but we can set up strong, big missions. And when people see the benefits, they'll do it. So, we land this mission to other people to do it and when it's achieved, it's going to be a greater good for all of us.

 

Peter M

You're trying to show them a different way, but of course you don't want them to be economically disadvantaged. So, this way, they're not economically disadvantaged, they can continue to earn money and support their families, but their behaviours start to change at the same time.

 

Rithy T

People can do reforestation but to change a mindset of a generation from cutting to reforesting land is close to impossible unless we have to show them something.

 

Peter M

Welcome to the third series of conversations in development, a podcast about challenges, life stories and experiences in the development sector. I'm Peter Mason, your host and CEO of Cufa, an international development agency, working across the Asia Pacific region. Today we welcome Rithy Thul, a young Cambodian entrepreneur, co-founder of Koompi, Vitamin air and SmallWorld Venture, Rithy is one of the people who successfully brought Khmer talks, as well as TEDx to Phnom Penh. Tell me a little bit about your background, what drives you to be this incredibly effective serial entrepreneur for want of a better word?

 

Rithy T

Well, first of all, I'm not so sure about effective serial entrepreneur, I like to be known hopefully in the future as a person who strives with the love of nature, rather than a serial entrepreneur, but anyhow. Coming to by my background, looking back, it's quite clear why I come to where I am today. At the beginning of my career, I started exploring when I was coming to Phnom penh, to the capital city after my high school, but spend two years at college and then get a little bored and decided to stop for two years, take a break and explore other options of education. And I stumbled upon internet, especially Skype, the long-distance communication that struck me in a very big way that internet would change so many things. So, I stuck with the internet and tried to learn as much as I could about the internet, communications and the tools. And most of the time, I learned from Wikipedia and stuff related to books that I can download from the internet, and just read about it, then I ran out of money. So I decided to make money through giving people advice about Cambodia, related to real estate with that already fast forward few months after I went out and take the real estate rentals and for sale and put it online, because there was some classified ads out there for me to sign up and post a real estate for rent and for sale.

 

Peter M

What year are you talking about there? When was that?

 

Rithy T

2006, 2007 and 2008. I finished my high school in 2004. And then came to compete right away at the end of 2004. And then finish take a break from my college time in 2006, and then started to explore those options and use internet as a medium to get myself around. I worked about three weeks a month, roughly and then one week, I took my bike and my 10 off the grid to just live in a village in the mountains somewhere looking for what I would want to do for the rest of my life to not get bored because after renting real estate for like couple months, I made some good amount of money income as a young boy I generated like $1,000 a month if I got lucky. That was a lot because I used to get paid per month by $50 as an English teacher at the time, $50 and then go to $100 and then suddenly I could earn a lot more like 10 times more, but then my life was a bit boring. I wanted to learn how rich kids in Phnom Penh spend money. So, I went to the clubs where they when. Somebody told me that in order to understand the culture and the people I need to spend time with them, and especially when I wanted to know how to reach people behave and do live their life then I decided to use my income to invest in those experiences.

 

Peter M

It's interesting you say that because when people say you've got to understand Khmer culture they don't tell me to go to the clubs, they told me to go out to the rural areas so I've been getting the wrong advice all these years.

 

Rithy T

I never understood how rich kids get opportunity, rich kid network,

 

Peter M

which province Are you from?

 

Rithy T

Kandal, not too far from the city, but for the first 17 years because I was living on an island. I left the hometown to see the seaport city for the first time once when I was 16. And that was it. That was all my life for the first 17 years have some TV though, and a little bit about the city through TVs and news. Back then we educated through TV and most TV ad was about something that wouldn't be real. You know, I, I never knew that Phnom Penh has a university to study for free. I only knew private universities, because they were the only one who put an ad on TV. I felt so disappointed because compared to what I was shown on TV and the real reality of on the university campus. It was like a joke. The first year I needed to do something because I cried after I finished high school, that all my friend went to Phnom penh and I didn't because I did not get a scholarship. I didn't know that I could apply for a scholarship. So, my parents didn't know what to do. They said maybe you take a break for one year. And I just cried, and my dad was so sad that he decided to take me to Phnom Penh and ask permission from mom to let me stay in a pagoda.

 

Peter M

So, your family, were they working on the land? Do you come from the land or what's your background?

 

Rithy T

Yeah, my family are farmers, my mother's side is a merchant slash government related officer in the previous before Khmer Rouge. They made mats and clothing and things related to household appliances from natural material. That was my mother side, my father's side are all farmers.

 

Peter M

Are your parents a little disappointed you haven't stayed on the land or they're happy for you to go to Phnom Penh and find your own way in the world?

 

Rithy T

They wanted to study by themselves but could not. So, me and two of my siblings were sent to Phnom Penh no matter what. They were trying their best to send us to school while a lot of people in my generation had to be staying at the homeland and could not go to school, lots of people. In my generation there were 80 people when I was in primary school. And then by the time we finished high school ,4 people could go to university and me was one of them, and I'm the only one who dropped out from the university. So, 80 people, 3 went to University, one drops off, and the rest drop off way before me.

 

Peter M

I think I first met you when you were running SmallWorld. That was many, many years ago. So, tell me a little bit about your journey from SmallWorld through to now VitaminAir.

 

Rithy T

I think I told you a little bit many years ago, we wanted to make something in the jungle. I started first after my college break, I went into this real estate service, and then after six months, I decided to be a consultant, then I renamed my title to be a consultant, and for some reason people trust me and trust how I can help them. While working on real estate I took time to read about internet, computer and never took a breakout of that. So, about a couple years after I decided to volunteer at an organisation, I think you know, Pepy, so I decided to be with Pepy for a year and then ended up there for two years and travelled a little bit more after Pepy. At Pepy I learnt a lot about education, giving access to children's education in the rural province that led me to start Koompi, the spin off company from SmallWorld computer company. With SmallWorld, we all want to create an office in the jungle. And then about five years ago, I travelled to Kampot very often about two times a month. Then I started to see the change in the mountain that from month to month that I go, I see green to grey and then after a year when the rainy season starts the green start again, but it doesn't start the same amount as it will before. So, I thought this is crazy. In a short timeframe a year only the changes in the mountain, it's quite a lot. There must be something to do with it. There must be people cutting a lot. So, I wanted to reforest this mountain, but I didn't know how I didn't have any idea. And then I started to do more research about reforestation, how to make it happen. I see a lot of examples in Brazil and other places that people can do reforestation, but to change a mindset of generation from cutting to reforesting land is close to impossible, unless we have to show them something. So that was a start.

 

Peter M

Deforestation is brought about by selling the rights through governments etc. or private land holders. How do you talk to land holders or to governments to change their mind because it is an economic necessity that a lot of people are doing this?

 

Rithy T

Correct, so what we are doing now with VitaminAir is that we don't talk to anyone, we don't stop anyone from cutting. Although we do to some extent, the forest next to our land. We started with our own property, so we bought 110 hectares of property three and a half years ago, and committed that as a model where at least 80% of the total land will be reforested back to nature and 15% will practice natural farming and permaculture so that we can we can generate some amount of income to pay people who work with us local people, and 5% or so will be for accommodations and gas for ecotourism. And the land we bought is bordered to a small mountain, where behind our land is the mountain. So, we block people from going up to the mountain and cut behind our land.

 

Peter M

This is in the kampot province. Yes?

 

Rithy T

Between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh, behind Kampot, and we are on the other side of Bokor mountain range.

 

Peter M

Right, right. So, you're trying to create what they might call a land bank?

 

Rithy T

Yeah, something like that. So as for now, we will use this as a model and then use technology, we want to turn not just a mindset, economic or shift between cutting trees, to generate money to growing trees to make money. Once we can achieve that, this is not an if I think it's a when. I don't know how long it would take maybe 5 years, maybe 10 years. But we placed this goal, at least 10 years to our timeframe that within 10 years single shift from what we have now 100 hectares, as a sample for a lot more people that own bigger land than us to work with us or they start it by themselves. Our goal is to reforest Cambodia, not because we have to do it by ourselves alone, but we can set up a strong, big missions, and when people see the benefits, they'll do it. So, we lend this mission to other people to do it, and when it achieves it going to be a great good for all of us. And what we invest a lot more now is in the technologies. So, we are working on a seed bomb project where the drone flies and drops seed bundle together with many other seeds into a bomb and create a mini bomb to drop from the drone. And once it dropped off the permanent drone, it will explode and then send the seed everywhere it should go through natural selection model, then to make sure that the seed will grow and flourish, we are using an example of Israeli technology capture water from the air device, but we will have to create many device placed on the hill. So, once it captures the water it can distribute those waters through lower ground through Earth's gravity. They will use little energy and can still transfer water to the place it should go.

 

Peter M

Let me just understand the water capture is that through the panels that capture the water in the air is that correct?

 

Rithy T

Humidity. So, in Israel, they use water capture technology to capture drinkable water, a watergen. Many other researchers do too. We start to do research this about a year and a half ago and came to the conclusion that Cambodia would be a much better place to make more water from the air because we are a humid country. We have about 74% of water in the air compared to the desert, which is very small. I think 30% of the air has water.

 

Peter M

Here in Australia were using similar technologies where they're starting to trial them out in the desert with indigenous communities, but they found that they have to add salt to some of the water because it's so pure that it's actually not good for the body because, I mean this is for drinking water not for forestation. So, yeah, it's interesting what the technology is now doing in terms of water capture.

 

Rithy T

Yeah, so actually this we learn from the tree itself. If you use a knife to just dig into a tree there's water in the tree, and tree pass by technology to capture water from the air transmitted through many layers of its nature. In short, what we do is developing this property and reforestation with nature, follow what nature does, and then replicate it in technology where we can do to amplify the effect so that it can get more water to grow in more places, but it might have an implication for drinkable water in the future. But first now we just put it to use for natural farming and reforestation

 

Peter M

With these land banks, you're also trying to make them economically viable. You've mentioned before eco-tourism and that's a long-term goal of yours, is it?

 

Rithy T

Yeah, and co2 trading. So, I remember about in 2016, we were meeting once and discussed about blockchain related projects. If I were wrong, I'm not sure if it was you, but...

 

Peter M

It was me. You're correct.

 

Rithy T

Yeah. So, we were talking about blockchain related this project will use blockchain to tokenize Natural Resources for carbon trading, and a piece of land tokenize a piece of land too. So, let's say for the land itself at the farm, we have now created an application that can tokenize a piece of land. we have not identified everything we should tokenize yet, but we want to tokenize the resources that created from the nature and then capture in data as a digital asset, and then people can invest in. People who own part of the land, for example, in the future that want to join the economic, they cannot donate, they can submit their land side with the amount of trees oxygen can produce from the tree to be part of the economic development. And then in exchange, they get this token that is tradable with other currency or sell it to other people who want to hold it. This we call a natural resources organisation on the land itself, on top of the activity that generate economic income from eco-tourism, and natural farming and farming agriculture,

 

Peter M

Am I right in reading so when you, as you say, tokenize, the land, then other external parties can then buy those tokens to offset their carbon emissions? Is that the concept?

 

Rithy T

Yes. And not only that, let's say there are many ways to tokenize this land, yeah, let's say we tokenize the forest, let's say 100 hectares since in we use drone, we have drone flying at a steady time, let's say every 7 o'clock every 10 o'clock in the morning, it fly and capture the whole field, and capture the changing of the environment on the field, and has a few cents to measure the impact on the land, say every day it grows and emits the oxygens a tonne, or 100 tonnes a day, then per hectare, if it emit oxygens out to the atmosphere, a tonne a day, 100 times a day, then we can multiply by 100. And this will create a token using smart contract so and then, because we have created into the atmosphere, and this is data, nobody can lie, nobody can hide. There's a book that says everyone lies but data doesn't, show me your data. So, we will show people the data. We show that how many tonnes of oxygen we offset global warming the co2, so it's a long term, we help reduce global warming, and if any company will buy that those who hold this will have the economic return. But this is a long term thing, by 2025 to 2030, we will see that as for now the co2 trading economic is getting more hot, not sure if it's going to be real for the future, but this is one of the way to help solve global warming issue. But because this is a long term, we need to find a way to satisfy the community development to around where VitaminAir are located, the commune has, I think 30,000 hectares total, and they are about eighty something family. We are testing with 10 family now to create a basic income for the family, let's say we guarantee $150 per month for the family, if they work, not work for us, but work in their farm their field, whatever they do, and don't go up to the mountain to cut the tree. If they do work, we will then find a market for their crops, let's say one family grows vegetable or onion ten families grow 15 to 20 different kind of vegetable and fruits, then we'll find a market for them. This can create a simple market platform so that city people can order from this location and then weekly deliver. So, we are testing with this now, not started yet, but we are in the process of community needs assessment. We are not an NGO, by the way, but we need to learn from what the best NGOs have done, and then use economic development and entrepreneurship to push the development.

 

Peter M

What you're essentially trying to do is incentivize behavioural change, I guess. Yeah, no, just by the way, you're talking about it. You're trying to show them a different way, but of course you don't want them to be economically disadvantaged. So, this way, they're not economically disadvantaged. They can continue to earn money and support their families, but their behaviours start to change the same time,

 

Rithy T

Yeah, so we do not want to like, everyone needs to survive, everyone needs to live, they go up to the mountain to cut the tree because of money. And I asked them how much money they make, they make $150 a month to $400 a month, if they're lucky. And it's risky, very risky, the snakes, the animals, and they interfere with those animals, and then they have this new virus coming out of this. Obviously, this is not going to be guaranteed to be practical everywhere. But what we see now this is what we can do here that they are about 10-11 families. If this is on the economic development side, or in the end, what we want is not a co2 programme, co2 is only part of the economic incentivization for behavioural change.

 

Peter M

That's fantastic. What I would like to find out a little bit more about what you were doing that SmallWorld and then also what you were doing at Koompi

 

Rithy T

SmallWorld is to reforest the people in the city by investing and helping young people to become entrepreneur, hopefully some will become very successful entrepreneur, and some will become a decent, successful entrepreneur so that they can take care of themselves, and those who are very successful will become a mentor and job creator for many more people. When we have enough entrepreneurs that are successful, then we have enough people on our side that help us protect what we create. With Koompi is to power more young generation, not this generation, I think it will be very hard for my generation and a few years younger, to adapt to Koompi because they need to change what they have learned for the last 10 years to switch to an open source base OS like what Koompi uses, but those who are now in high school are the most beneficial groups that will benefit from open source world and the internet, the open internet world and become the new kind of innovator. That's what we do at Koompi is to create and get an environment suitable for the next generation of Aspire innovator to become a real innovator themselves in the next 10 years or so, so that we have even more people that can help themselves and help others.

 

Peter M

Sorry, my understanding of Koompi was also you created your own laptops, is that correct? Or have I misunderstood?

 

Rithy T

Correct, yes, we come to a conclusion, let's make one type of OS for one type of hardware, and that come to a decision to find what kind of hardware we want to work on. So, we started to model with raspberry pi, we had to buy a battery screen, and a case, and we thought there are some laptop moulding already designed in China. So, we just go to buy the mole, and then we work with PCB maker to make the hardware correctly work with our OS, then we will have a laptop. So that was the point that was okay, let's not waste more time. Let's try it out, and then one guy wrote about it, and so many people want to buy it and it ended up starting Koompi.

 

Peter M

So, you never producing your own branded laptops,

 

Rithy T

We produce one model and now we are using another for younger students in secondary school for a small 11 inch inspire by OLPC, One Laptop per Child. The laptop is the same as a normal laptop that use in office ready to go to work. It's not going to be just for children anymore. This kind of computer designed to fit in the hands of children, but ready to work in the real office.

 

Peter M

Is the price of the computer accessible or are they still quite expensive for the average Cambodian?

 

Rithy T

It's not very accessible to the poor of the poor, but very accessible to the type of family where I'm from that willing to send children to go to school and study a private class on top of school to be able to pay like $5 per month on private class or $10 a month per class. So, this computer costs about $150 and guaranteed three years we don't make any profit on that. Obviously, the profit margin is reserved for a computer quality assurance, meaning that if anything is broken, they don't need to worry, swap a new one or just fix it for free. We want people to be educated become independent and very developed in terms of their mindset and their thinking so that we can invest in them more into the future for those who can become real entrepreneur. There are two initiatives at Koompi, one is to push to have every laptop in every high school, secondary school across Cambodia, starting in Cambodia and maybe we expand to Africa when possible. Right now, we are talking to a prospective partner in Nigeria. Another initiative is to push to have one laptop per student, but we call one student one notebook, so that students can just have one laptop, go to school and have anything they need. Although this has a very economic implication to some organisation, that supply textbook, they don't like it, because if you do that, they will lose their business. But they hold on to what what's worked for them won't work for the whole generation. So, we need to find a way to incentivize them.

 

Peter M

Are you working with the Education Department on this, or are you still in the early stages?

 

Rithy T

We are starting to now discuss with the Ministry of Education for the MoU to work together on that. So every lab that we create, we call company line x lab, in partnership with the Ministry of Education, and we send one facilitator which trained by Koompi, about how the operating system work, how the internet work, how everything work, and transfer the knowledge to teacher and students, those who want to learn first at the school.

 

Peter M

I would imagine you'd have to do a fair bit of work with the teachers first.

 

Rithy T

Yeah, but we have one person stand by there for one year. For every lab we started, we hire one graduated student, or someone in Phnom Penh that has a fair amount of knowledge about computers and our OS especially. We build our open source community now about 2000 people in the network, and we recruit through our community, and they already some of them, most of them, actually we recruit and those who bought Koompi before and love it, and they want to work with us.

 

Peter M

Fantastic. I also wanted to talk to you about what you've been doing with Khmer talks, and also Ted x Phnom Penh talks as well. I believe you were the prime instigator for those.

 

Rithy T

Yeah, but I didn't do much in with them. So, I stopped pushing my talk, I think in 2013 when I started working on the refurbishment project, and TEDx. Now we have many other groups of students to like, have access to Ted. We started in 2010 to get TEDx to Cambodia. And then you know, this kind of volunteer work, we just wanted to start the ground-breaking and then let the rest done by the next generations. Although I want to see much more activity about TEDx and create knowledge band for the next generation from people in my generation can share knowledge and store it. And so, the new generation can find these resources useful and record it as a history timestamp. But we might come back to this sooner in two years or so, and when thing goes smoothly, we Koompi and SmallWorld, and VitaminAir these are the three projects I'm working on five project at the moment, but these are the three main projects I'm working on and take all my time.

 

Peter M

Just as we conclude. Tell me what does the future hold for Cambodia, and particularly the young people of Cambodia, what do you see the next 10-20 years looking like for the young people of Cambodia?

 

Rithy T

We can always make a guess, and then use this as a benchmark to build like a staircase one after another. I would say that with the current flow of education materials and the availability of the technology, Cambodia has a high chance to go higher. Cambodia will turn into this word called upper developing country, it can go faster, you know, with the empowerment of the technology if it's applied very well. The new generation has a lot of opportunity, but also a lot of competition. My generation has less opportunity less to work, but not much competition. In a way, my generation is a bit lucky, but lots of people missed the opportunity. So, there are always going to be people who miss opportunities, but we have a lot more educated young people now than when I was younger.

 

Peter M

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. I really appreciate it. It's really insightful to hear what's happening out there in Cambodia. So, thank you so much for your time. And I hope our listeners have enjoyed this talk. Thank you

 

Rithy T

Have fun and stay safe.