With a largely young population who are inquisitive and increasingly tech savvy, does Cambodia have the potential to become a regional technology hub as it enters the ASEAN economic bloc?
BY STEVE NOBLE
cambodia is throwing its hat into the technology ring and tackling domestic and regional gaps in the sector. With increased government support, a burgeoning entrepreneurial and commercial scene and high web penetration though mobile devices, the Kingdom has a prospering tech bubble. From technology incubators to the launch of technology- and gadget- focused publications like STUFF magazine or web-based technology sites like geeksincambodia, 2014 saw a lot of movement in the growing tech sector in Cambodia.
Commercially, more companies continue to enter the domestic market. World Bridge International recently announced it will launch a one-stop online shopping destination – MAIO (My All In One) Mall in 2015. With the services set to include online shopping, booking of tickets and hotel rooms, as well as banking and financial operations, such as microfinance, the company is tackling a huge range of technologies that have been fraught with problems in Cambodia to date.
“I think with the e-commerce space, not being able to buy things online, not being able to pay for things online and also transferring money, is a pain in Cambodia,” says Cambodian technology entrepreneur Ki How Tran of ArcHub.
E-commerce remains in its infancy, and an e-commerce law, which potentially could have implications for ventures like MAIO Mall, is still being drafted. Steven Path is the CEO of Pathmazing and developer of FanNow, which has ambitions to be the first major e-commerce product in the Kingdom. Pathmazing has already signed agreements with major local and international payment providers such as Wing, Pay&Go, Visa and other major credit and debit cards, and also works with ACCLEDA bank. Path is also on the board of directors of the Information and Communications Technology Federation (ICTF) which is helping formulate the new law. “We are trying to work with the government to help implement the e-commerce law here in Cambodia,” he said in an interview with geeksincambodia in December 2014.
The ICTF was officially launched in 2014 in Phnom Penh with more than 100 members including local and international technology companies with a presence in Cambodia, as well as telecommunications firms and ISPs (Internet Service Providers). The ICTF will help promote the interests of its members, working with both government and the private sector. In addition, the ICTF will provide guidance on the development of industry regulations and work with foreign governments to encourage international collaboration.
If you trace the news from the past 18 months in Cambodia, many separate developments are taking place in the sector, although is sometimes can be confusing to see quite how they interrelate.
USAID backed Development Innovations recently signed an MOU with the ITC (Institute of Technology Cambodia) to increase the use of technology and Information and Communications Technology in Cambodia. Greta Greathouse is the chief of party at Development Innovations, which launched in March 2014.
“This is an experimental project and the premise is that there was an emerging technology sector in Cambodia,” she explains. “So the idea was, let’s see if we can create an innovation space, a hub as the focal place for likeminded Cambodians that like technology and would like to work in technology and see, with additional resources, if we could get technology providers and civil servants in social organisations working together in this innovation space in technology.”
Admitting that it “doesn’t fit together perfectly,” Greathouse says the difficulty lies in getting everyone working together. “We are finding that it’s harder than we thought to get as many Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) engaged as we had hoped. The CSOs here are not sustainable, they don’t have money to do an ICT project. With technology service providers, we have had a greater response.”
One of Development Innovations’s main objectives is the creation of an Innovation Lab. “We are interested in promoting technology, getting more people excited by technology, building up the systems for technology, getting more students to study technology,” she says, adding that Development Innovations has developed a reputation for its non-stop programming. “As of December 2014 we did 138 events; that’s astonishing. We are serious in building the community for technology, that’s a key element of ensuring sustainable technology here.”
The human resource constraints are very real, but the uptake of what Development Innovations is doing is driven by young upwardly mobile Cambodians.
“I think they will catch up, everyone says there is a 10-15 year gap between Cambodia and its ASEAN neighbours,” she says. “The signs are positive if you look at the penetration of Smart phones for example. It’s a vibrant community and a lot is going on with initiatives in ASEAN and the Mekong like the COMET project in which they will build centres of excellence and training hubs that will provide a standardised curriculum to ramp up the number of skilled workers.”
So what about the entrepreneurial technology space? Brothers and Co-Directors of Arc Phen (3D printing) Ki Chong Tran and Ki How Tran, grew up in the US and their parents are from mixed Chinese-Cambodian descent. They have held talks on the potential of 3D printing and exhibited at various local technology hubs and conferences in Cambodia.
The pair have already created a prosthetic hand for finger amputees and a 3D model for a Farmer’s Friend Biodigester system for the National Biodigester Programme of Cambodia. They would also like to develop 3D printed prostheses for victims of landmines in Cambodia.
“I thought it would be a good idea for a place like Cambodia where there was very little manufacturing, we could leapfrog manufacturing, we could go direct to 3D printing … the population is very young and it’s growing very fast,” says Ki How.
“When most people find out about 3D printing they are really interested, but it’s difficult for them to understand what the capabilities are and what they can use it for,” adds his brother. “A lot of them think, oh I can make small toys, but they don’t think about the engineering aspect of it, where you can make molds and functional parts. We really have to show it to them.”
Ki Chong teaches 3D design and entrepreneurship to low-to-middle income kids at the Liger Learning Center. “It gives them an education based on being hands on,” he says. “The kids form teams and come up with a product that’s 3D printed, and then they try to sell that product. I think it has to be practical and benefit both parties. I don’t believe personally in charities; I don’t think they work and [they] create a lot of dependency. But if you teach somebody and they learn how to do it themselves that’s much better. Make it sustainable.”
He believes the business opportunity for 3D printing lies in developing prototypes. “With 3D printing you can do so many things,” he says. “At the moment it’s prototyping, we have met a lot of people doing plastics manufacturing. They see definite time and costs benefits in this space.”
And as for the future, these entrepreneurial brothers are looking to copy their Cambodian model across ASEAN.
“If the model works in Cambodia, which we think it will, it should work in other developing countries like Myanmar, Laos etc.,” says Ki How. “No one is that far ahead with 3D printing even in Singapore and Hong Kong or even in America or Europe, which is why we feel we can succeed and do what we do despite a lack of resources because the technology is so new.”
Internet across Cambodia looks set to become a whole lot speedier with the introduction of the country’s first submarine internet cable. Internet provider Ezecom hopes to complete the 1,425-km cable by the end of this year that will run between Preah Sihanouk province and Kuantan, the state capital of Pahang in Malaysia. From there, it will link into the Asia- America Gateway – a 20,000-km cable linking Southeast Asia to the United States. The cable is expected to boost internet speed from 512 kilobits per second to 2 megabits per second.