Pierre Mainguy is the President and Co-founder of Community First, a non-profit that brings social innovation where it is most needed. Over ten years, Pierre has worked in northwestern Cambodia carrying out the projects of Community First that focus on bringing sustainable change and economic development to the villages of Sen Sok. It all started with the construction of the first water wells deep enough to sustain the community throughout the dry season. This first project brought clean drinking water for 10,000 people on a $25,000 grant from the Pasadena Rotary Club of California.
With waterborne diseases eradicated in Sen Sok, the villagers sought to address a problem that is systemic throughout rural Cambodia. As a result of a sustained drought and a lack of infrastructure and training, families are unable to guarantee their subsistence needs.
Subsequently and with the help of French-born horticulturist Romain Rak, the Community First team was able to develop the first off-grid aquaponics system made for remote rural communities. This food system brings together the best of fish raising and vegetable farming without using any soil and recycles water perpetually. This enables families to farm both a source of protein and fresh produce through the drought. It does so by converting fish waste into nitrates, which provides the nutrients for the plants.
Category of Humanitarian Benefit: Knowledge Sharing
Together, Pierre and Romain engineered a low-cost system that can not only help a family move away from subsistence and towards abundance, but can also become a significant economic development tool in areas where many single female-headed households are struggling to make ends meet economically.
Pierre Mainguy is a financial analyst by training and used to work with early-stage startups in the greater Pasadena area. He holds a finance degree from the International Management Institute of Paris and has been running Community First since he was 23 years old and created the organization with philanthropist and organizational consultant Mr. John Whaley.
Romain Rak is the head of operations and research & development at the Community First farm school in Sen Sok, Cambodia. Romain has over ten years of experience in commercial horticulture. During his apprenticeship in France, he received an “Apprentices’ Prize” from the Rotary Club of Castelsarassin. He is also an accomplished landscape artist who designed several major gardens in luxury hotels in Cambodia’s touristic cities. His expertise and experience were essential in bringing aquaponics where it is most needed. Today he oversees Community First’s advanced training program for families at farming technique and high-value-added produce to help them develop new sources of income.
Project Name and Description
“Village aquaponics in Cambodia”
Northwestern Cambodia is notorious for its poor soil and droughts. There, the water table is so low that many villagers are unable to drill the wells needed to thrive as a community. In addition, a poor irrigation infrastructure only lets farmers produce a single crop of rice per year.
Because of this, many in the village have to leave their families and seek low-wage and high-risk jobs as migrant workers in order to ensure the family does not lose their farm because of predatory lending or a high hospital bill, a story that is all too common throughout the Cambodian countryside. This leaves the community’s most vulnerable such as young mothers and pregnant women, the elderly and the disabled to fend for themselves. This is why the project focuses on single female-headed households and the elderly.
While aquaponics requires equipment and training, it circumvents both soil and water issues by design. It also makes for a superior food system as it yields three times as much crops as conventional in-soil techniques.
The project is centered around the Community First farm school, where commercially viable aquaponics is in full swing and where farmers can come and learn the basics before getting a system of their own. Subsequently, newly equipped aquaponic farmers are enrolled in our continuing education program which provides them with the skills that match their objectives. Whether families want to guarantee their subsistence need, reach abundance levels to barter in their village or create a small business, the Community First team at the farm school is onsite every day of the year to help villagers grow their vision of a brighter future.
As previously mentioned, childhood stunting is a serious issue affecting 40% of all children in Cambodia, especially in the more rural areas like Sen Sok. Stunting is due to a lack of proper nutrition during the neonatal and prenatal stages of life and irreparably impairs a child’s motor and cognitive development. This situation is so dire that the United Nations placed Cambodia on their list of “alarming nations” because of this specific trend, which show very little sign of waning.
Aquaponics in such areas can also have a significant economic impact that is highly sustainable. Every startup system can be expanded and upgraded with reclaimed materials to help produce larger quantities and more valuable crops. Our advanced programs train farmers at growing strawberries in the plains of the Mekong for Cambodia’s hospitality industry. This approach can potentially triple a family income over a year, empowering them to take control over their journey to lift themselves out of poverty.
With this newly found source of income, families tend to prioritize the education of their children and the development of their homestead. But very often, they will also do their best to invest in their health.
While people living in these communities have a good sense of basic health needs, other more complex conditions are often poorly understood. In Cambodia, because the monoculture of rice led to the mono-diet of the same simple sugar, 12 to 14% of people living in rural areas suffer from hypertension, prediabetes or diabetes. This situation affects over 1.5 million people nationwide in Cambodia, where little to no insulin is found in rural areas because of its cost. Therefore these diagnoses go untreated and diabetes ultimately takes its heavy toll on the lives of these communities, but the program is moving in a direction to make aquaponics the economic engine of better healthcare for this segment of the community.
With aquaponics bringing fresh produce and fish protein as well as new income to these households, the program offers solutions to a broad array of complex and interconnected socio-economic issues.
Community First Website: www.wearecommunityfirst.org,
Aquaponics in Sen Sok (6:47min video): https://youtu.be/rU7pxxZl6Gw
FAO paper on aquaponics: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4021e.pdf