My first impressions in Cambodia

by James Han, KF9 Cambodia (AMK)

AMK's New Home Office in Phnom Penh

AMK's new home office in Phnom Penh

Sus-Dai (Hello)! My name is James Han and I recently took a 3-month leave of absence from my management consulting career to work in Cambodia with Angkor Mikroheranhvatho Kampuchea (AMK), currently Kiva’s largest field partner.  I’m thrilled to see first-hand how AMK operates as they are one of the most well-respected and efficiently operated MFIs in SE Asia (more to come on that topic in future blogs).  I also have some big shoes to fill as past Kiva Fellows from AMK have either been hired full-time by AMK to start new initiatives (again, more to come later) or have now become famous in the Kiva world (e.g. Kieran Ball who created the Kiva video, “A Fistful of Dollars – The Story of a Loan”).  No pressure!

My work plan over the next 10 weeks will be slightly different from the typical Kiva Fellow work plan  I have been out in the Kompong Chhnang province of Cambodia for the past week, meeting with the local entrepreneurs and conducting Kiva Journal updates.  I’ll continue to do this for the next 2-3 weeks and then spend the majority of my remaining time working on a couple special projects for AMK.  Before my placement began, I was sent a list of two dozen projects I could potentially work on, ranging from researching the use of mobile phones in microfinance to new product development for special interest groups, such as victims of human trafficking.  While it was hard to choose, I decided to stay in my consulting sweet-spot and will help AMK revise their incentive and salary compensation programs and will also devise a measurement system so AMK can compare performance between their various branches.  I feel like a kid in a candy shop and will certainly do as much as I can with my limited time here!  Be on the lookout for updates!

I’ll leave you with my first observations about life in Cambodia:

One, everybody in Cambodia smiles a lot!  It’s one of my favorite things about living here so far.  When I was out in the field, a borrower who was part of a group loan found out she had to cover the loan of another group member who ran away from the village.  She was livid and started yelling at me and the loan officer.  It was the tensest moment I had yet, but when I gave her this guilty, helpless smirk, she gave me the warmest, biggest smile as she rode away in her bicycle.  Cambodians never fail to show their pearly whites!

Two, AMK loan officers may have the most difficult job at the MFI.  Being in consulting, I’m used to long days, but back at home, I get to sit in an air conditioned office and order nice take-out dinners.  While I was out in the field this past week, I visited about 5-10 entrepreneurs from 8am to 1pm and couldn’t find the energy to get back out in the field in my moto.  I was exhausted, hungry, and had a horrific farmers tan.  The loan officers on the other hand went for another 4 hours during the hottest time of the day.  And they never complained.  They’re rockstars and they make this whole system work.

Three, Phnom Penh is a city run by NGOs.  I’m impressed by the number of foreigners that make a living helping Cambodians.  The good side of the story is that there is a lot of international pressure on the government to address social issues such as poverty, education, and human trafficking.  However, I couldn’t help but feel like the NGOs are substituting the government in providing social services.  If that’s true, the work that the NGOs do, while commendable, will never be sustainable. I have heard that many NGOs are starting to leave Cambodia because of the lack of funding during the recession.  We’ll see the impact of that reduction soon.  Also, what’s going to happen to the tourist/foreigner dependent economy here when NGOs leave in bunches?

Four, the kids here are extremely smart and talented.  A little girl (10-years old) who goes by “Ka” sells books on the street outside my apartment and is one of the best salespersons I have ever met!    I told her I would buy some postcards from her if I ran into her 5 times.  She proceeded to giggle and hide behind a tree while poking her head out repeatedly, “2. 3. 4. 5! Okay, you buy now!”  Another girl (13-years old) engaged me in a conversation about how it doesn’t make sense public officials have so much money when the rest of Cambodia is poor.  I hope Cambodia finds a way to positively tap into the potential of their youth. (50% of Cambodia’s 14 million people are under 25, with a median age of 20.6)

Five, my favorite part of the day is riding through the Phnom Penh rush hour on the back of a moto.  You get to hear and see the country in fast forward.

Some pictures and snapshots:

Morning view of the Mekong River from my apartment

Morning view of the Mekong River from my apartment

Kirirom National Park

Kirirom National Park

Repayment Meeting in the Pshar Village of the Kompong Chhnang Province

Repayment meeting in the Phsar Village of the Kompong Chhnang Province

Loan Officers from Kompong Chhnang Branch Getting Ready for a Full Day

Loan officers from the Kompong Chhnang Branch getting ready for a full day of repayment visits

Picture Perfect Drive through the Kor Village

Picture-perfect drive through the Kor Village

I am excited to be here and will be sharing thoughts, observations, and experiences over the next 10 weeks!

James Han is a Kiva Fellow working for Angkor Mikroheranhvatho Kampuchea (AMK) in Cambodia.

AMK’s mission is to help large numbers of the poor in Cambodia improve their livelihood options through the sustainable delivery of appropriate and viable microfinance services.  To view their current fundraising loans on Kiva, click here.


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