John Chhay

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It’s six in the morning in Banteay Meanchey Province and John Chhay (ISPP 1998-2004) is awake. He is getting ready to meet a group of Cambodian farmers. John is the Cambodia National Sales Manager of an award-winning international non-government organization, International Development Enterprises (IDE). Meeting with farmers is one of John’s favourite things about his job, especially when they have clearly benefited from the work of IDE. John gives the example of Mr. Kuy Ta who did not have enough money to cover his three children’s school fees. He planned to sell his land, but realized it would still not be enough. After going through IDE training, Mr. Kuy now generates enough profit to send all his three children to university in Phnom Penh and still owns his land!

John (second from right) during a farmer training in 2012

Founded on the belief that better livelihood opportunities help reduce poverty, IDE works with rural households to improve their access to tools and knowledge that increase their incomes. John explains that across Cambodia, farmers typically lose 50-70% of their yields per year to pests, floods, and drought, which amounts to about 4 million riel ($1,000 USD) loss per family. “My goal is to get that money back for the families.”

As a Senior Manager of the Farm Business Advisors (FBA) program at IDE, one of John’s primary responsibilities is to facilitate the training of smallholder farmers and local entrepreneurs to become FBAs, who sell agricultural inputs and provide technical inputs to other farmers. Under their own franchisor, Lors Thmey (meaning ‘New Growth’), IDE has built and expanded a network of 100 FBAs that work with thirty agronomists and serve more than ten thousand farmers in seven provinces of Cambodia. John oversaw the increase of total net income generated by farmers increase from $39,600 a year to over $432,000 a year. You can find out more about the program and its daily impact at the program’s website.  

While giving an expert and accessible explanation of the FBA program, John repeats a strongly held principle of IDE: “We don’t give handouts, we treat the farmers as clients, and it’s their own decision to buy what we offer. Farmers purchasing inputs means they’ve understood the value and potential return on investment. This is key to behavior change!” In this way, John seeks to break some of the traditional dependency behaviors that he has seen develop between communities and other NGOs in Cambodia. Convincing people to use a business approach to poverty reduction has proven to be one of John’s greatest challenges. “I try to explain to people that IDE is a social enterprise, which is like the child of a business that married an NGO.”

John never thought that he would ever be able to use his strong business skills to make a difference in Cambodia. As the son of Cambodian-Canadian missionaries, John thought he was heading down a very different path to his parents when he chose to study Business at Calvin College, Michigan, USA. At 19, he ran his own business as an independent contractor for the Southwestern Advantage (formerly known as the Southwestern Company). Working eighty hours a week, he went door-to-door selling educational materials for the Summer Sales Program, a job that the company’s own president describes as “incredibly hard, frustrating work.” John’s work ethic eventually made him one of the top 100 salespeople out of thousands of university students across the world.

After completing his Bachelors in 2008, John quickly took a job with CanPages in London, Canada. In this position, he began to enjoy the perks of successful business life, buying a car and earning a six-figure salary. Most importantly, John had finally saved enough money to come back to Cambodia in 2010 for the first time in three years to see his family. Little did he know, this trip home would change his life.

During his trip, John met two significant people. The first was Scott Roy, a sales management expert and consultant for IDE. “Scott said to me, ‘I know you’re really comfortable with your job in Canada, but you could come back here and make a real difference, while still using your skills’. Four months later, I had resigned from my position, sold my car, and accepted a contract with IDE… and I have no regrets.” The second person that John met during his visit, was his now soon-to-be wife, Anna (who you may know as the namesake and owner of Anna’s Spa in Toul Tom Pong). Introduced by a former ISPP classmate, John and Anna will be getting married in November 2013!

“I feel better than I ever felt before in my life.” Getting to feel this way in Cambodia has not only been a professional journey, but also a very personal one for John. Having grown up in Canada, he struggled with his identity when his family made the decision to move to Cambodia in 1998. “I was Cambodian ethnically, but I was Canadian in most other ways. Moving to Cambodia was difficult because I didn’t speak Khmer well, the food was unfamiliar, and I was always treated as a foreigner.” Today, John is happy to be feeling more at home, both in the city of Phnom Penh and out in the countryside.

Reflecting on his growth, John leaves us with some of his personal ‘do’s and dont’s ’ that have contributed to his professional and personal fulfillment: “Don’t waste the summers between classes while at university, its what you do outside of your grades that sets you apart from your peers. Do try to always get enough sleep at night. Don’t bring your work home!”  

John (middle row, third from right) in a Grade 10 class photo at ISPP