‘Tech startups have potential to revolutionise education’ – Khmer Times

It would be hard to imagine any person other than Paul Vandenberg who has been in a never-ending search to discover how some countries become rich while others remain poor.

Though fundamental it may appear on the face of it, but it isn’t.

Not surprisingly, this has compelled Vandenberg – without doubt a leading economist and academic rolled into one – to delve deep into the inexplicable varying facets of industrialisation, human capital development, enterprise finance and the labour market that eventually shaped nations.

Vandenberg, who has co-authored the Asian Development Bank report – ‘Cambodia’s Ecosystem for Technology Startups’ – along with Sopheara Ek, spoke at length with Khmer Times Business Editor/Mentor Ashok Patnaik about the challenges faced by tech start-ups in Cambodia.

KT: Your report sheds a beam of light on the tech start-ups in Cambodia, which has already been described as having ‘a promising startup landscape’. Please explain this to us…

It is promising because we have seen, since the mid-2010s, the emergence of new startups continuously. It is also promising because the government recognises the importance of startups and their need for support, and it (and other players, such as donors and incubators/accelerators) have put in place support. This has helped to create a supportive infrastructure.

KT: Four critical areas – environmental technology, agriculture technology, health technology and education technology – are intrinsically connected to the development of common people. Although there has been certain progress in these areas, a lot more need to be done. Your comments…

Certainly, a lot more needs to be done, in two ways. First, more entrepreneurs need to come forward in these areas to develop, test and market new ideas/technologies. Second, the support they get needs to be sector-specific. For example, a mentor working through an accelerator can provide much better advice if he/she knows the specific sector (health, education, agriculture and green) than if s/he has just general business experience.


KT: How much assistance do the tech startups get from the government and other stakeholders? What can be done to accelerate the process?

It is hard to say, “how much”, as support comes in many forms. Two things are important: (i) some support is donor-driven and may need to transition to self-sustaining (such as some incubators), and (ii) success will encourage more support, i.e., if investors and incubators have successful experiences with startups, they will want to continue to expand their support to other, new startups.


KT: In practical terms, how many startups have actually started offering innovative solutions to the problems faced by Cambodians?

It is difficult to track the number of startups that set up or exist, in part because a clear definition is hard to come by (here or in other countries). Tech startups are SMEs but they are only a subset or category of SMEs, not all SMEs are tech startups, and distinguishing them is not easy. There is a table in the report with rough figures on the number of startups by sector, more than 200 but this is dated and it is not clear whether the process of new startups was stalled due to the pandemic. It probably did. By definition, a tech startup is an enterprise that is innovative.


KT: Your report provides a range of recommendations for how government and other stakeholders can strengthen the ecosystem to enable tech startups to flourish in Cambodia. How optimistic are you that it will bring a fundamental change in the lives of ordinary Cambodians?

Most startups innovate/use digital technologies and it is clear that these technologies have changed the way we shop, access services, work, study, and interact personally and professionally. A big challenge (and hope) is that technology will have a large impact on farming and have fundamental change on the productivity and therefore income earned by lower-income farmers. Tech startups have the potential to revolutionise education and access to health services. Change is coming (and happening now) but the question is how long it will take to be fully realised. Change is a constant. I have no crystal ball, unfortunately.

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