Transforming Food Systems: Youth Innovation for Human and Planetary Health: The InGuider Experience

Sustainable agriculture
International Youth Day, celebrated annually on 12 August aims to bring youth issues to the attention of the international community and to celebrate the potential of youth as active partners in the global society.

In 1999, General Assembly resolution 54/120 endorsed the recommendation made by the World Conference of Ministers of Youth (Lisbon, 8-12 August 1998) that this day be declared International Youth Day.[1] Such a day provides an opportunity to celebrate young peoples’ views and initiatives on a global scale. The 2021 theme for the day was therefore selected as transforming food systems during the 2021 ECOSOC Youth Forum (EYF). Sustainable food systems are critical in delivering progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals. From ending poverty and hunger to responding to climate change and sustaining our natural resources, food systems lie at the core of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Food Systems Summit in 2021 underlines the growing urgency and need for new approaches and bold actions to shape healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food systems.[2] 

“A food system gathers all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes.” As defined by the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE 2014).

The urgency with which sustainable food systems is being endorsed has come at the right time to support several countries such as Cambodia, where the agriculture sector is still a major employer and livelihood option for majority of the poor and one of the key engines for economic growth and poverty reduction. 70% of Cambodian households derive all or an important part of their income from agriculture, however, the production is dependent on the monsoon rain and natural floods/recession of the Tonle Sap River and Lake and are restricted to growing single crop during the wet season. This leaves small holder farmers particularly vulnerable to climate change given their high dependence on rainfall and minimal crop diversification.

Furthermore, Cambodian agricultural lands are under threat of degradation and soil fertility depletion. This is exacerbated by unplanned watershed management and soil degradation in the uplands and in the lowlands due to mono-cropping farming systems driven by regional and international market demand. Therefore, there is a need for the agriculture sector to reinvent itself by shifting from increased production through land expansion towards sustainable intensification.[3] The future transformation of agriculture in Cambodia is visualized towards sustainable intensification which looks at optimizing resource utilization and management whereby farmers produce greater yields by using fewer inputs and without increasing land area.

Students at Royal University of Agriculture plant rice seedlings.

For the vision to come into fruition, several puzzle pieces need to come together, and one of the big ones is improvement in technical human resources. One of The Royal Government of Cambodia’s Rectangular Strategy’s goal is to ensure “each youth specializes in at-least one skill in life[4]. This element likewise, is reflected in one of the recommendations to come out of the EYF as providing adequate capacity development with respect to the resilience of food systems and the need for inclusive support mechanisms that ensure youth continue to amplify efforts collectively and individually towards the goal. It is a commonplace to say that youth are the future of humankind. With that in mind, Swisscontact Cambodia’s InGuider program, works specifically with university students in the agriculture sector in order to equip and empower them with relevant skills by providing them with quality hands-on training via internships.

InGuider (Internship Guider) is a four-stage guideline in preparing and running a well-structured internship program for universities in Cambodia. The essence of the InGuider model lies in (1) the structured and centralized approach of the program (i.e., the faculty provide support in pre-selecting the companies rather than the students finding companies on their own, if required), (2) the pre-internship training for students and (3) close supervision of the students by a faculty supervisor throughout the internship period. 

To achieve the aforementioned elements, the model adopts 4 stages for the program. It begins with Stage 1 (Preparation), in which pools of trainers and supervisors are formed to help run the program. Stage 2 (Partnering) involves reaching out to private companies to promote the program and get their participation. In Stage 3 (Recruitment and Training), interns are recruited and trained. Finally, in Stage 4 (Monitoring and Evaluation), monthly and final feedback tools are used to improve intern’s performance and evaluate the program. 

InGuider implementation map in 2020

From June 2019 to December 2020, the Faculty of Agricultural Engineering (FAE) of the Royal University of Agriculture ran the InGuider internship program in cooperation with Swisscontact. The aim of InGuider was to provide students with practical experience in the career field they wish to pursue. This not would only provide them with an edge over other candidates when applying for jobs, but it would also equip them with relevant skills and empower them to excel at their work. Many universities and colleges do require students to undertake internships as part of degree completion. However, the challenge was that these internships were usually not standardized into a coherent program. Also, there was lack of internship opportunities available for students especially those pursuing agriculture, in many universities in Cambodia. Concurrently, private companies mention difficulties in finding qualified human resources. That is where InGuider came in.

Born and raised in Battambang, Cambodia and seeing these vast tracts of farmlands in the province throughout his life, Kun Buntha, a third-year student from the Faculty of Agricultural Engineering (FAEng) decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in machinery engineering. He has always been passionate about these big machineries. Therefore, in 2020, he participated in InGuider internship model where he exposed himself to the first-hand experience at a private company based in his home province.

“I gained a lot of experience from the internship, especially from the daily practice and guidance from the supervisor. There are so many machineries here I can work on. I get to disassemble and reassemble them, all by myself. At school we have more students than the number of machines, here we have more machines than the students. We need to share the machinery so everyone can disassemble it. That limits our understanding on every part of the machinery,” he described the situation of his internship.

Buntha (right) and his friend at Royal University of Agriculture
Buntha fixing an agriculture machinery

Furthermore, Buntha also got to learn about soft skills as a result of interactions with the company’s customers for three months. “Beside the technical work, I also support showcasing the products to customers. Sometimes, I do field demonstration for farmers at their farms. It is fulfilling for me because it is a whole new experience, I also improve my soft skills in sales and convincing people. I am more confident with myself after that,” added Buntha.

The story of Buntha and others like him, is an ingress point for InGuider to contribute to the food systems transformation movement. It allows students to increase their employability, and the private sector benefits from a skilled labour force, all while contributing to transforming food systems in Cambodia. It is planned that in total 62 students (30% women) will get access to the internship programme by 2024. Currently, as of 2021 there are three more students that are being trained by the Conservation Agriculture Service Centre (CASC) of the General Directorate of Agriculture (GDA) through the InGuider program. The experience that these students receive through the program along with the urgency through which the topic of sustainable food systems is being endorsed, goes hand in hand towards the vision of reinventing the Cambodia agriculture sector with the shift towards sustainable intensification. And through the InGuider experience, the Cambodian youth will be empowered to play a pivotal role towards that transformation.

Learn more about InGuider


[1] IYD Concept Note, United Nations

[2] Food Systems & the SDGs, OECD

[3] This is also the focus of the Rectangular Strategy IV (2019-2023)

[4] Rectangular Strategy-Phase 4 (2018-2023), Royal Government of Cambodia