July 26, 2023
PHNOM PENH – In a move set to revolutionise Cambodian agriculture, entrepreneur Chan Dara has become a pioneer, bringing Starlink’s high-speed internet to the Kingdom.
Starlink, a constellation of small satellites operated by US aerospace company SpaceX, offers high-speed internet access to over 56 countries.
“High-speed internet access will benefit farmers by opening access to an entire suite of Internet of Things [IoT] devices, robotics and precision geospatial GIS farming tools.
“These help automate many processes and reduce the inputs previously required,” Dara explained.
He believes the initiative would open up a world of possibilities for technology and agricultural innovation, allowing entrepreneurs and students to gain access to the latest technologies.
Before relocating to Preah Sihanouk province, Dara worked in California’s self-driving car industry.
He has since built an agro-tour farm in Veal Renh, spanning 60ha and focusing on cultivating fruits including durian and rambutan, along with other crops such as vanilla, cacao, bananas, dragon fruit and coconuts.
Dara has big plans. His ultimate goal is to establish a smart farm that automates labour-intensive processes like irrigation using moisture sensors and rain forecasts.
For instance, if a caterpillar starts munching on a vanilla leaf, a motion sensor camera can promptly notify a worker to remove it.
Furthermore, each plant will be equipped with a QR code that offers information about its species, horticulture techniques and data tracking.
“While these ideas are yet to be implemented, they rely on the availability of high-speed internet to enable IoT technologies,” he noted.
This realisation came to him during a visit to his family’s farm in Veal Renh. He noted that traditional farming processes were primarily done by hand and that mobile phone reception in the area was often unreliable.
Dara was motivated to transform traditional agriculture into a modern, digitised version. He brought in a Starlink enabled mesh network to facilitate high-speed internet access across rural areas.
Dara is excited about the potential applications for agritech in the region.
“This would support functions like real-time farm monitoring, automated planting and harvesting robots, and marketing and branding opportunities through live streaming. We are only at the tip of the iceberg for potential agritech applications,” he said.
From his experience at self-driving tech company Aurora Innovation, Dara is deeply interested in emerging technologies and their potential to transform traditional farming into a smart, automated system.
A new challenge
And after four years at Aurora Innovation, Dara was ready for a new challenge, returning to Cambodia.
His experiences in Silicon Valley and his exposure to the innovative start-up environment have hardened his resolve to introduce new technologies to Cambodian agriculture.
Setting up Starlink wasn’t without its challenges.
Dara explained that Starlink requires an unobstructed view of the sky to prevent service interruptions. To overcome this, an employee pruned some coconut trees and installed a mounting bracket on the farmhouse roof.
Dara also highlighted another hurdle: “There’s no live support or phone number to call for technical support. You have to figure it out for yourself.”
The internet connection enabled by Starlink is vital for the success of innovations like CAM-Smart Irrigation, a system that revolutionises traditional farming methods.
Neak Sokkim, a 20-year-old student of information technology engineering, mentioned that this system requires an internet connection for its mobile control system. Without internet connectivity, using such advanced technology would prove challenging.
Setting up Starlink has its costs, with the hardware kit, satellite receiver and Wi-Fi router priced at $600, and a monthly fee of $200 for global roam service, according to Dara.
He also warned that satellite internet service may drop during rainy and cloudy days.
For locations with access to other broadband options, those might be a better choice. However, for remote regions with low population density and high infrastructure costs, satellite internet, like Starlink, offers a unique solution.
One of the advantages of Starlink, as Dara points out, is its portability. Whether you’re camping on a mountain or heading to a remote island, Starlink can provide internet access.
His strategic choice to bring Starlink to Preah Sihanouk was influenced by the coastal province’s critical infrastructure, which includes an international airport, an expressway and access to a deep-sea port.
With China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the ambitious Bay of Lights development, Dara believes the province is poised to become the next international hub of Southeast Asia.
Despite the advantages, bringing Starlink to Cambodia has not been without regulatory challenges.
Dara acknowledges that the technology operates in a regulatory grey area. His goal is to demonstrate the technology’s efficacy and accelerate the deployment of agritech innovation in Cambodia.
He urges organisations to engage with local regulators to express interest in satellite internet technology.
“The conversation was very constructive, and they were reasonable and pro-innovation, but they wish that I spoke with them to register first,” he recounted his experience with officials at the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.
Where agriculture, tech intersect
Dara advised early adopters to reach out to local telecom regulators. For others, he said Starlink is set to deploy broadly in Cambodia by 2024, once it is properly registered and licensed.
Dara’s vision for the future involves increasing the availability of decentralised, open-source and digital education. He believes that the high level of technical expertise can be achieved with minimal equipment and is humbled by the willingness of individuals across various countries to openly share their experiences.
With his innovative initiative, he is charting a path where agriculture and technology intersect, setting a transformative example for rural communities not only in Cambodia but also around the world.
By leveraging high-speed internet and advanced agritech, he envisions a future where farming becomes more efficient, sustainable and profitable, helping to uplift communities and change the face of rural economies.
Even while his focus is on radically improving agricultural practices through technology, Dara underscores the importance of preserving traditional knowledge, cultural practices and the preservation of biodiversity.
As he envisages a future in which Cambodian farmers gain access to the latest technology, Dara acknowledges that the road to achieving this vision is challenging.
However, he is driven by the conviction that the path to sustainable, high-yield farming lies in marrying traditional practices with new technology.
“In the long run, these technologies will enable Cambodian farmers to increase productivity and reduce their reliance on chemical inputs.
They will have a positive impact on the environment, contribute to food security and lead to higher incomes for farmers.
“My ambition is to make a contribution to Cambodian society, and I see technology as a way to do it,” he said.
Innovation is at the heart of his vision. Dara understands that the successful implementation of such a venture would require not only the application of modern technologies but also the active participation of a well-educated workforce.
“The key to successful adoption of these technologies is training and education. We need a new generation of farmers who are not only comfortable using these technologies but also capable of adapting and innovating.
“The key to changing Cambodia’s agricultural landscape lies in increasing education, training and access to technology.
“My goal is to help farmers and communities reach their potential and achieve sustainable, high-yield farming,” he said.
Dara’s dedication to his project and the Cambodian agricultural community is clear. With the backing of Starlink’s high-speed satellite internet, he hopes to shape the future of farming in Cambodia, providing vital connectivity to the world’s most rural areas.
His pioneering vision promises a future where technology and agriculture intersect in extraordinary ways, transforming rural Cambodia and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in agritech.