Last November I was in Battambang, Cambodia facilitating public speaking workshops for the local management staff of the local Digital Divide Data (DDD) office. Although DDD has several other offices, the Battambang office is the only one located in the countryside, and as such is very interesting from a development point of view.
Much of staff comes from the countryside, either around Battambang or from neighboring provinces, and thus grew up in a farming family. People from these backgrounds typically have limited employment options. They are faced with either continuing the family business in farming, finding a factory job, or moving away from family in search of employment. But for high achieving people these aren’t great options.
Furthermore my informal conversations revealed that farming just “ain’t what it used to be” in terms of its predictability and profitability as a business. Say what you will about climate change—the farmers are noticing changes that are directly impacting them, making farming a riskier and more complicated venture. Plus I have to wonder how lucrative small-scale, small investment farming can be on a sustainable basis, with farm products being sold more and more as a global market.
As I was travelling between Phnom Penh and Battambang I noticed a few factories along the way in rural areas. And yes, while factories are a way to employ a large number of people, they aren’t going to properly tap into the latent talent that is in the community, looking for an outlet.
And moving to the big city, while it may sound promising, is a decidedly mixed bag for many people. Consider that in a family oriented culture such as Cambodia, it’s particularly tough to leave family behind and move away to a big city where accommodation is expensive and where the traditional family safety net isn’t there. Nonetheless your smartest folks, who would be natural community and family leaders, will be that much more likely to move away from the countryside to the big city in search of employment opportunities. The result is a brain drain.
Now in this day and age of technology and remote working arrangements, in theory it ought to be possible to locate outsourcing centers in rural areas. There should be an opportunity to tap into attractive cost structures and a smart, motivated, untapped workforce.
But there are barriers to overcome. How would one jump-start the talent pool, in order to get such an organization off on the right foot? What special challenges would come up from training a rural workforce? And would international clients be comfortable trusting work to a location that was difficult to visit?
And yet one way or another, DDD Battambang has managed to overcome these hurdles and create a thriving rural BPO office in the countryside of Cambodia. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, there’s fresh air. It’s a pleasant place to live.
I think this is just the beginning—rural BPO could have a big impact for many other places, and other services as well.