CAMESCO 2023: A Forum To Advance Cambodia’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

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The Cambodia Ecosystem Strengthening Conference (CAMESCO) 2023, held on December 8 at the Fairfield by Marriott in Phnom Penh, presented a platform for the advancement of Cambodia’s entrepreneurial and investment ecosystem. The annually-held conference is dedicated to fostering a robust network among Entrepreneur Support Organizations (ESOs) and other critical system players, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship and trust-building.

Co-financed by Khmer Enterprise, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), CAMESCO is one of three ‘brands’ under the Enhancing Entrepreneurial Ecosystem and Investments (3Ei) initiative. 

Watch B2B Cambodia’s highlight video featuring interviews with Etsuko Ito, Program Officer at Sasakawa Peace Foundation, Samuil Shiderov, Blended Finance Expert at UNDP and Rajiv Pradhan, Country Director of Swisscontact Cambodia:

The first conference held in 2022 set a high precedent with 167 participants representing various local and regional entrepreneurial entities. CAMESCO in 2023 managed to attract around 180 participants representing close to 90 institutions and organisations. The conference featured 15 expert speakers from Cambodia and across the globe, discussing critical topics such as Gender Lens Investing (GLI), Blended Financing, and Inclusive Development of the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem.

“Today’s event can be seen as the culmination and wrap up of a year’s efforts to strengthen Cambodia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem within the 3Ei project,” said Markus Buerli, Director of the SDC, during his welcome remarks.

“I find that there are two distinctive points that make CAMESCO different from other conferences,” added Che Jung Won, Deputy Country Director of KOICA. “We bring local, regional and global partners together to share practices on a very wide range of topics… and we also discuss beyond our own business scopes, sharing thoughts on how to address gaps and foster inclusiveness.” 

H.E. Dr. Chieng Vanmunin, CEO of Khmer Enterprise, thanked all partners for their continued collaborative efforts to build Cambodia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and encouraged everyone to continue networking and building new connections.

“I’m very confident that the insights we will receive and the discussions that will take place today will highlight the thought provoking ideas that we have been working on together,” said Vanmunin.

Key Results From Cambodia’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem In 2023

Lisa Chao from Khmer Enterprise delivering presentation at CAMESCO 2023.
Lisa Chao, Business Networking Lead and Executive Officer to the CEO of Khmer Enterprise, delivering a presentation at CAMESCO 2023.

The conference’s first session was led by Lisa Chao of Khmer Enterprise, who provided a summary of key results from Cambodia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem in 2023, particularly from the monthly ‘Give a Day’ events and quarterly Ecosystem Builder Network (EBN) meetings organised under one pillar of the 3Ei project.

“In 2023 we held nine ‘Give a Day’ events with around 400 participants from more than 150 institutions,” shared Chao. “We held them both in Phnom Penh and in Siem Reap where there is the second highest recorded engagement in entrepreneurial activity in Cambodia.” 

“The purpose of doing these events was not just to share industry insights, but to also act as a platform to collect feedback and identify gaps and opportunities for collaboration among ESOs,” Chao explained. 

“By the last EBN meeting, we successfully developed the draft version of the roadmap, and currently we are onboarding consultants to continue the remaining activity, so I believe this is going to be an exciting journey that we are embarking on, and the roadmap will also be a very important mechanism for change in the ecosystem,” she concluded.

Attracting Gender Lens Investing Funds To Cambodia

Etsuko Ito from the Sasakawa Peace Federation delivering her presentation on the GLI landscape study in Cambodia.
Etsuko Ito from the Sasakawa Peace Federation delivering a presentation on the GLI landscape study in Cambodia.

Another notable session during the conference was centred on sharing some of the preliminary findings of the Gender Lens Investing (GLI) landscape study conducted by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (SPF) in Cambodia.

Beginning the presentation, Ayaka Matsuno, Director of the Gender Investment and Innovation Program at SPF, defined GLI as “the deliberate incorporation of gender factors into investment analysis and the corresponding decisions made to improve social and business outcomes”. Matsuno explained that the SPF wanted to help produce research on GLI in Cambodia to show how gender factors could be incorporated into the country’s entrepreneurial ecosystem roadmap.

Etsuko Ito, a Program Officer at the SPF, presented some of the key findings from the study which involved interviews with 68 ecosystem actors, surveys with 200 enterprises in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap, and a stakeholder consultation workshop. Ito noted that a vast majority of the surveyed participants were classified as ‘GLI enterprises’, but only a small fraction had received any investment capital in recent years. The data also revealed a striking gender disparity in financial needs, with male entrepreneurs requesting substantially more capital than their female counterparts.

Furthermore, the study uncovered a gap between the financial needs of microenterprises and the loan amounts typically offered by financial institutions. Ito underscored a lack of awareness about GLI among enterprises and the need for further research to understand the financing needs of female entrepreneurs.

“The notion of Gender Lens Investing in Cambodia is fairly new, a lot of interviewees we talked to did not know of the concept,” said Ito, while speaking with B2B Cambodia. “We believe that the concept alone might not be so important, because what is happening to women on the ground is more important, but knowing the concept and applying its practices would definitely help to attract more investment into the country.”

Ito particularly highlighted the fact that 70 per cent of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in Cambodia are women-led, underscoring the large contribution women entrepreneurs make to the local economy, and the potential to further promote GLI in the Cambodian context.

“Since the number of private funds related to GLI have been growing dramatically in Asia over the last few years, I think it’s a great opportunity for Cambodia to attract GLI-related funds,” she concluded.

How Can Blended Finance Tools Support SMEs In Cambodia?

Panel discussion on using blended financial instruments for SMEs at CAMESCO 2023.
Panel discussion on using blended financial instruments for SMEs at CAMESCO 2023.

A session on blended finance featured insights from Ritesh Thakkar, Senior Advisor at Convergence Asia Pacific, and a panel discussion led by Fai Wechayachai of GSG, exploring the use of blended financial instruments for SMEs. Blended finance tools are often mentioned in the context of large development projects, however, this session sought to share how they could potentially be an appropriate financing method for SMEs as well. 

Thakkar defined blended finance as the strategic use of developmental or concessional funding from public finances, philanthropic organisations, multilateral development banks (MDBs), development finance institutions (DFIs), and overseas development assistance (ODA) to catalyse private sector investment in areas hindered by market failures. This approach aims to ‘de-risk’ and alter the risk-return profile of investments, making them more bankable and addressing the issue of commercial investors avoiding sectors with high risks or low returns.

He shared that the global blended finance industry currently stands at around USD $200 billion, with ASEAN contributing about 10 per cent, highlighting the growing momentum in the region for blended finance. Thakkar explained that blended finance typically supports projects in clean energy and financial services, and can take various forms like funds, projects, or bonds, emphasising its alignment with advancing financing for sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Samuil Shiderov, Blended Finance Expert at UNDP Cambodia, was one of the panellists featured in the discussion of how blended finance can support SMEs. Speaking to B2B Cambodia, he underscored the flexibility of blended finance, noting its applicability to both large-scale projects and smaller, aggregated transactions. This adaptability makes it suitable for varied investment scales, from significant infrastructure projects to smaller, community-based initiatives.

“This is the beauty of blended finance, it can be a big transaction, such as a hydropower project worth billions of dollars, but here in Cambodia, it can also be focused on solar water pumps for irrigation, for example,” he explained. “If we combine a lot of transactions that are small in one portfolio, then this portfolio could become an interest for bigger investors.”

Shiderov also discussed the application of blended finance in different sectors, pointing out that its use is contingent upon the potential for returns. He explained that the level of concessionality or support required in a blended finance structure varies depending on the target group’s needs, with more vulnerable or remote areas needing greater support compared to urban areas.

“For example, if we target remote areas or vulnerable people, then we need more concessionality, more support… It depends on the mix, that’s why it’s blended. How strong it is ‘blended’ is also important, particularly regarding how much the concessionality will be,” added Shiderov.

He stressed that a nuanced understanding of local contexts is key for the successful implementation of blended finance solutions, including in-depth stakeholder engagement that allows for a careful assessment and alignment of visions, objectives and interests in order to facilitate mutually beneficial deals.

Promoting Inclusive Development Of Ecosystem And Investment

H.E. Dr. Chhieng Vanmunin, CEO of Khmer Enterprise, speaking at CAMESCO 2023.
H.E. Dr. Chhieng Vanmunin, CEO of Khmer Enterprise, speaking at CAMESCO 2023.

Other sessions focused on inclusive ecosystem development, with experts from ANDE, Villgro Philippines, and AVPN sharing global and regional best practices, and discussions on market changes needed for investment pipelines. The conference culminated with a keynote by Durreen Shahnaz, Founder and CEO of IIX and IIX Foundation, announcing the ‘Women’s Livelihood Bond’ with a USD $100 Million issuance, of which at least USD $10 million would be focused on Cambodia. 

Speaking with Rajiv Pradhan, Country Director of Swisscontact Cambodia, after the conference, he reflected on the success of the past two editions of CAMESCO and expressed hope that more stakeholders will become involved in the coming years.

“The first edition was all about looking internally, and with this year’s edition, we expanded and brought in a lot of regional actors,” said Pradhan.

“Next year, at CAMESCO 2024, we hope to bring in more investors and sell more positive enterprise and investment stories from Cambodia. hopefully that will help the entrepreneurial ecosystem, community anD Investments Grow,” he concluded.

CAMESCO 2023 was supported by its gold sponsors (SPF, ABA Bank, and ADB Frontier), silver sponsor SeT4SME, and other strategic partners like AVPN, ANDE, and GSG.

Stay tuned for more articles and videos on CAMESCO 2023 from B2B Cambodia.

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