The tech scene in Cambodia was kicked into high gear in 2013. Over the past two years, incubators, hackathons, and startups have started to pop up at an increasingly rapid rate. While the tech scene has finally started to mobilize, it is still relatively new and its popularity and resources are not widespread.
Contrary to what one might think, money is not the main challenge for the Cambodian tech scene. The main issue is that there are no successful Cambodian-led startups in Cambodia, so Cambodians don’t have examples of startups or role models to look to. The majority of current tech outreach efforts are around making technology “cool” so that more Cambodians are encouraged to pursue technical degrees, become tech entrepreneurs, or attend tech-related events.
Another large problem is retention. Very few Cambodians pursue studies in tech related fields (only 6% of Cambodian university graduates have technical degrees), but the few that do can be easily discouraged by failure or high levels of difficulty. There are ample resources and events for those that are interested in tech, but attendance is often low. The projects that come out of these events are rarely followed through on. Thus, commitment is another area of focus for helping to grow the number of Cambodians in the tech industry.
Other challenges are lack of educational resources, poverty, and language barriers.
Startups, incubators and investors:
In 2013, BookMeBus was conceptualized and is currently leading the race to being the first successful Cambodian-led startup. Most startups are based out of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. The majority of other startups that have garnered a lot of attention are led by foreigners.
Incubators in Cambodia function more like co-working spaces (though a few incubator/accelerator programs are in the works.) SmallWorld, RainTree, Emerald Hub, and Impact Hub are popular coworking spaces. Other up-and-coming coworking spaces are TRYBE and Comm.ON. Cambodians also work from cafes or host meetings in the ever-popular Brown Cafe.
Angel investors in Cambodia and surrounding areas are readily-available and eager to invest in startups that have potential. They often attend pitch competitions and hackathons with the hope of finding the next (or in this case, first) unicorn. The Mekong Angel Investor Network (MAIN) is the backer behind BookMeBus.
There are ample opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs to get their big break in Cambodia through programs such as the Mekong Business Challenge and Startup Weekend. The U.S. Embassy, Microsoft, McKinsey and Google have been generously funding tech-related events in Cambodia. Other large sponsors include local tech giants such as SMART and DMI.
Cambodia’s educational infrastructure was set back immensely during the genocide. Between 1975 and 1979, 75% of tertiary teachers and 96% of university students were killed (CDRI 2013, 34).
A study on equitable access to higher education (ADB 2012a) claims Cambodia’s upper secondary school gross graduation ratio is 7.5%, which is very low by regional comparison [e.g.Thailand (40%)] and Cambodia’s school life expectancy is about 10.5 years.
The gross enrollment ratio in higher education is just over 10%—the lowest in the region.
Of the students enrolled, about 6% are enrolled for computer science, less than 3% for engineering, 1.4% for science and 1.3% for mathematics (World Bank 2012).
Not surprisingly, there is a huge skill gap in the Cambodian workforce.
In a 2011 survey by HR Inc. (Cambodia), 73% of employers reported that university graduates in Cambodia do not have the right skills (HRINC 2011 cited in World Bank 2012, 1).
A different survey, sponsored by the International Labour Organization (ILO), found only about 10 percent of employers rated the quality of public education providers in Cambodia as “good or excellent”. Only Myanmar had a lower figure.
One recent study claims that if Cambodia wants to attract foreign direct investment in the range of, say, 6-8 percent of GDP between now and 2020, it would need about 35,000 engineers and another 46,000 technicians by 2018 (JICA 2012). Currently, Cambodia falls far short of these figures.
U.S. Ambassador William Heidt has recently shifted his focus on technology development in Camboida. Initiatives like Development Innovations Cambodia (a USAID-funded project) are leading the way. Organizations such as STEM Cambodia also contribute with large events like the STEM Festival.
In terms of tech news, Geeks in Cambodia is the first online publication to be completely dedicated to technology in Cambodia (think TechCrunch Cambodia). VOA Khmer (one of Cambodia’s main news sources) is also ramping up their coverage of the growing tech scene.
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