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Building and Strengthening an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Cambodia

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PHNOM PENH: The entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cambodia is rapidly expanding. With the economy booming and much potential to be tapped in both local and international markets, more Cambodians are turning towards starting their own businesses. Many entrepreneurs, however, still struggle to find or access the necessary funds to allow their businesses to grow and flourish.

Connecting entrepreneurs with investors, and fostering deeper trust-based bonds between all system actors within the entrepreneurial space, is a key aim of the ‘Give a Day’ initiative, part of the larger ‘Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Building Project (EEB)’, jointly funded by Khmer Enterprise, USAID’s WE Act Project through Pact Cambodia, and Swisscontact.

‘Give a Day is a monthly meeting organized to facilitate entrepreneurial support organizations (ESOs) and create a routine and space through which ESOs can learn more about each other’s work and differentiate their program. This month’s event was held on Wednesday, 18 May, at the Cambodiana Hotel in Phnom Penh. According to Swisscontact, the implementing organization, the initiative is built on the underlying principle that all individuals have skills, experiences, and talents that are not fully utilized, and needs that are not addressed by their own team’s experiences, skills, and talents.

“Give a Day is actually the outcome from the social network analysis of Phnom Penh’s ecosystem in 2019, [where] we understand that there is a need for such an event,” said Sokhuy Lay, the ‘Give A Day’ Coordinator and Program Lead of EEB from Swisscontact. “Give a Day is also implemented in other countries, like Uganda, and Swisscontact is very excited to introduce [this initiative] in Cambodia to improve the entrepreneur ecosystem by deepening the trust-based relations among system actors.”

Lisa Chao, the Business Networking Lead and Executive Officer to CEO of Khmer Enterprise, a unit established by the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and one of the joint-funders of the EEB project, elaborated on why Khmer Enterprise supports Give a Day, saying, “we are trying to be the national platform to promote entrepreneur activity and also expand the ecosystem, so this kind of event is one of the things that we are doing to try and bring everyone to connect and to make further collaboration through sharing based on different topics.”

Each month’s Give a Day event is focused on a different topic, which Gives a Day Coordinator, Sokhuy Lay, said was decided upon based on the demand and majority interest reflected in a survey sent out to entrepreneurs and ESOs. The topic of this month’s event, the fourth one of the year, was focused on “Investment and Funding Landscape Mapping.”

Tommy Boukhris, the Cambodia Advisor for the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN) and Senior Consultant & Portfolio Manager at EMC, was invited as the speaker for the event, to share insights on the investing landscape in Southeast Asia, as well as what opportunities there are for Cambodia and how Cambodia can attract impact investment funds. His presentation highlighted how Cambodia, as of 2019, had the largest impact investment industry for private impact investors (PIIs) in the entire Southeast Asian region, mostly concentrated in the finance sector. Additionally, he said that while there is a fairly highly evolved ecosystem in Cambodia, it is mainly for financial inclusion, and the concept of social entrepreneurship is still very nascent, although there are a large number of NGOs.

“One of the things that we are looking at in Cambodia now is you have all these entrepreneurs, a lot of businesses that are now coming online, but they are not able to find the right access to the funds that they need to grow and scale their business,” said Boukhris.

Speaking further on the importance of this month’s topic, Investment and Funding Landscape Mapping, for the Cambodian economy and local entrepreneurs, he added, “Part of the exercise today is to look at where are the gaps and how we can fill those gaps to better serve the market, in particular the entrepreneurs that are trying to improve their business, trying to grow their business. So, the exercise today is to focus on: where can we fill those funding gaps? What are those missing pieces that we can actually address? And what types of creative funding options can we actually implement into this market?”

This month’s Give a Day event was attended by 56 participants representing investors, entrepreneurial support organizations, and representatives from the Government, among others. A breakout discussion session followed the invited speaker’s presentation, wherein participants, split into groups, were asked to fill in the gaps of an investment and funding landscape map, answer a few questions, and then present their collective brainstorm together as a group.

One of the participants in attendance was Laura Alsenas, the Executive Director and Head of Funds for Nexus for Development, an international not-for-profit organization that provides funding through debt financing and carbon financing to social enterprises in the water, clean energy, sanitation, and clean cooking sectors.

She said that Nexus has been involved with the ESO network through the Give a Day event for quite a while and has found it very useful. For this month’s topic in particular, she said that as a non-profit lender, Nexus is always curious to see what the different gaps are in the investment landscape and how they can fill it, or how to help the social enterprises they support to access other forms of financing.

“And more than that, as someone within the entrepreneur space here in Cambodia, it helps our entrepreneurs grow if we have different resources we can connect them to, whether they are accelerators, or whether they’re other investors, and so growing this network and making sure that we’re all connected, and more holistically supporting the entrepreneurs, I think is really important and super valuable for us,” she further added.

Ian Jones, the Founder of Mekong Inclusive Ventures, and another attendee of the Give a Day event, also shared how the initiative helps his organization as a program implementer.

“The Give a Day program is fantastic because it actually looks at the range of programs that need supporting or for the impact investment ecosystem,” said Jones. “So for one of our entrepreneur support organizations, Agile, we work exclusively with women entrepreneurs with disabilities that don’t need a lot of capital, but still need some additional support to access that for their microbusinesses, and with Mekong Inclusive Ventures, we actually look at larger scale clean energy impact investments, and one of the great things about having all of the investors here, the impact investors, [and] any other program implementers, is that we can actually discuss this how can we collectively make the ecosystem stronger, being able to talk to the government, about how they can create an enabling environment, and then actually attract more impact investment capital into Cambodia to make it thrive.”

Regarding what Swisscontact hopes to achieve with this initiative, the Give a Day Coordinator and EEB Program Lead, Sokhuy Lay, said, “For Swisscontact, we have a focus on the entrepreneurial ecosystem as one of our working areas, and Give a Day is a tool toward that effort.”

She further added, “We have seen that Give a Day is a great platform to build, to share, various pieces together, for example, the funding gap mapping, and everyone can support and provide the input, we see it helps to build the ecosystem in Cambodia. […] For us, we believe that Give a Day can help us to strengthen, support, build a system, a holistic approach, to support the Cambodian ecosystem, and we have worked closely with Khmer Enterprise and Pact on this initiative.”

The Give a Day initiative hopes to strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cambodia, by deepening the trust-based relationships among system actors. This month’s event, held on Wednesday, 18 May, was focused on ‘Investment and Funding Landscape Mapping,’ aiming to help entrepreneurs, investors and program implementers better understand the investment climate in Cambodia, and to give all actors a chance to network and connect with one another.

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