Our Story: from the garbage dumps of Phnom Penh to the rice fields of Sen Sok
In 2007, Pierre Mainguy was finishing his degree in finance at the International Management Institute of Paris when working for Angels Investors and Venture Capitalists in the Greater Los Angeles Area. That’s when he got the opportunity to meet John Whaley, who was already involved in Cambodia. His philanthropic work consisted of helping a nonprofit provide critically needed social assistance to children whose families lived on the city dump as garbage pickets in Phnom Penh.
Pierre was brought in for his skills in startup development to create economic opportunities for children that graduated from this program. During his first trip, Pierre interviewed several families on the dump, where he learned they all shared a common story. All of these desperate families used to have a plot of land, a farm, and a home in their village, which they ultimately all lost to lenders.
With over 80% of the population in rural areas making a living from rice farming, many face the risk. This risk is only increased in the face of climate change and persistent droughts which make it harder to predict rice yields. It was clear that a solution in those villages was needed, in order to derail the cycle of poverty at an earlier stage where we can turn stil challenges into opportunities.
As a result of these combined factors, 40% of Cambodia's children are stunted because of a lack of nutrition in the neonatal and prenatal stages of live. The United Nation's UNICEF has listed Cambodia as 'alarming' in that regard.
Since 2009, Pierre has been working on empowering the people of Sen Sok through a participatory approach involving a lot of focus group discussions with the villagers. With the support of John Whaley and his boots on the ground, Pierre and Community First were able to bring water to 10,000 people to address the community’s self-stated first need: clean water. Then came permaculture to help revitalize their sand & clay soil. Then the biodigesters to create fertilizer the land and power the home, and so many more solutions to help people create a livelihood and reclaim their freedom from poverty.
But in the 2010s, a particularly bad El Nino event turned the dry season in a persistent drought, making it very difficult for families to sustain their newly found freedom. Work soon began researching & developing as many social innovations as possible that would be both drought-resistant and water-saving. A clear winner came out of this contest in the form of aquaponics, a food system that brings together the best of fish farming & vegetable farming while recirculating water, without involving any soil.
In 2015 Pierre met Romain Rak, a horticulturist & artist with a keen interest in aquaponics. They started working together on developing off-grid aquaponics for the villages even before Romain officially joined the ranks of Community First. After several editions of a reliable model that found its inspiration in a publication by the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization, a final prototype was ready for a pilot project.
As a result of this monoculture of rice, and the inability to farm fresh produce or raise fish year-round, diabetes affects 12-14% of the rural population in Sen Sok (Source: Cambodian Diabetes Association). The farming of a protein source and fresh produce makes aquaponics an incredibly effective solutions for helping families caring for their health through nutrition.
With a solution ready to roll and families aching to farm and sustain themselves, the entire operation of Community First was centralized in Sen Sok on the grounds of the community training center it had built-in 2009. This facility was converted into a commercial-scale demonstration farm where we teach the people nearby. As a result, we’re able to provide more continuing education & training opportunities to aquaponic farmers.
Today, this farm school is home to social innovation in rural Cambodia and we are building more family systems and training more people than ever. In the Greater Los Angeles Area, where we provide aquaponic workshops to the community at large, we also have a demonstration site at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Our goal is to grow this project’s sustainability and impact so that we can do more when we’re ready to scale and replicate our approach to nonprofit work: one that is people-driven and focused on social innovation.