By Nadine Freischlad

In Cambodia, a Swiss artist is laying the groundwork for a village economy from scratch

Development rests on the foundation of healthy nutrition. With this recognition, Hannes Schmid set out to build the prototype of a smart village

Earlier this month, Hannes Schmid was the opening speaker at a global future leaders conference in Singapore. Schmid, born 1946 in Zurich, presented the program he spearheaded in Cambodia several years ago: Smiling GeckoThe independent NGO with the jovial name is, at its core, a smallholder agriculture business. It has achieved remarkable success and is recognized as a positive example of impact investment in Cambodia – a country that’s been struggling to achieve sustainable economic development and democratization, despite billions of dollars in foreign aid pouring in.

From its early beginning in 2014, Smiling Gecko has grown into a cluster of family farms, part of a larger development Schmid calls the prototype of a “smart village.” In addition to farmland, it has its own school, a guest house and restaurant for visitors, a carpentry that trains local youth. “Today, 6,000 people live from what we do,” says Schmid. “By the end of the year, it will be 30,000.”

Smiling Gecko differs from government or foundation-funded projects in the sense that it was set up as a business from the start. Schmid initially financed the program himself, but the clear goal is to achieve profitability and jobs in the different sectors of Smiling Gecko’s development. It has worked with donations as well as corporate partners to build out other aspects of the small business. The carpentry, Schmid points out, is already profitable and employs 50 people.

Schmid wasn’t trained as a development expert, nor was he particularly experienced in agriculture when he decided to start Smiling Gecko.He’s had exceptional career as a commercial photographer and artist. His most widely known work is likely the series of photographs he did for cigarette maker Marlboro, helping the brand shape its iconic imagery of the cowboy lifestyle in the 90s and early 00s. But Schmid’s work was diverse. He spent weeks living in remote villages, exploring the rituals and festivities of different communities and cultures. While in Southeast Asia, he came in contact with garbage collecting families in Cambodia, whose lives he documented.

He says life as an artist trained him to think freely and not within the existing paradigms of international development, and that this mindset prepared him for what happened next.

It starts with nutrition

Schmid built close ties with the Cambodian families, helping them out with direct aid like buying them Tuk Tuk cars for transportation, or food, where he could. He started the Smiling Gecko foundation in Switzerland in 2012 to get support. 

But nothing would change without a long term plan, he realized – one that would offer a steady economic income and a healthier living environment. It would need to start with better nutrition for the children – the children of slum and garbage patch dwellers have an inherent disadvantage at life because their bodies and brains can’t develop to their full potential if they, and their mothers, continuously lack nutritious food. After founding a Cambodia-based Smiling Gecko organization with Ngon Sokleap, a young lawyer who shared Schmid’s idealism, he set out to purchase a plot of land outside of the  capital Phnom Penh. There, the first cluster of small family farm houses was built, each with a vegetable garden, and space to raise chicken and pigs, and some families Schmid had grown acquainted with agreed to move in.

No year-long research or feasibility study went into deciding where to set up the small-scale farm cluster. The land was bought because “that’s where my Tuk Tuk driver lived,” Schmid explains. “It’s all coincidence! It’s coincidence that leads you to the right people.” Those first family farms started just three years ago and many mistakes were made. The chicken kept dying. No one was experienced at farming, but instead of giving up, Schmid asked for help.

Schmid mobilized his network and connections to Switzerland to enlist a university in Zurich, who sent researchers to Cambodia to help work out a system for small scale farming suitable to the local climate and conditions. “We made many mistakes, but we learned,” Schmid says. “The family farms aren’t fast enough.” Now the cluster includes a larger scale professionally run farm where piglets and chicks are bred. The farming families buy them and raise them to a size when they’re ready to be processed. Next, a school for the children of the farming families was set up, followed buy a guest house with bungalows for visitors and a restaurant. This provided additional opportunities for employment. Tilapia fish are now also raised on the farm. Sensing the growing interest in ecotourism, personal development and wellness, Smiling Gecko also opened up its guest house to yoga retreats.

Smart Village

Schmid distances himself from the idea that the Smiling Gecko development is a utopian community. Instead of withdrawing from society or declining its values and technological progress, he prefers to link up with research and international corporations whenever it makes sense. Consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers accompanies Smiling Gecko’s progress, studying its economic viability, Schmid says. He’s invited in companies like Google and Microsoft to figure out how to best make use of technology and data in an agricultural setting.

Schmid paints the picture of a “smart village,” which, beyond providing income and opportunity to the people living in it, counters Cambodia’s larger socio-economic problems like rapid urbanisation, and over reliance on imports due to a lack of domestic agriculture and manufacturing. Smiling Gecko isn’t stopping at agricultural and tourism. Schmid’s next ambitious investment is a rice processing mill. This way, Smiling Gecko can make better rice and market it more efficiently.

He’s also developing a food processing unit, where fresh vegetables are cut and prepared so that they are ready for delivery to restaurants and hotels in the country. Smiling Gecko’s own restaurant trains chefs and service personnel, facilitating exchange between international restaurants and local Cambodian cuisine. There are plans to grow the school to accommodate higher education, and a biogas reactor that will help support the development’s electricity needs.

Schmid expects the vision of the smart village to be complete by 2024 or 2025, eventually with the power of improving the livelihoods not just of people working on the land itself, but also the surrounding villages which make up a total population of some 600,000 people. Of course there are problems, he admits, with achieving things at speed. Lack of education is one aspect – things move slower with staff who have never learned to read and write. Occasional blackouts on the farm are still a problem, until today.

But he’s hopeful that Smiling Gecko can contribute on that end, too. Children who attend the school are given healthy meals and learn English from early on. “Khmer is a cultural language,” Schmid says. It needs to be preserved, along with cultural heritage like dance and music. But in order to have future prospects beyond the village, learning English is a must.

What Smiling Gecko is doing right, where other, similarly well-minded initiatives fail, is the holistic approach to developing opportunities along different needs within the community, rather than focusing on one aspect alone. “Most NGOs are one way streets”, he says. “They do something with mangos, something with fish.” That doesn’t lead to large enough economic opportunities. International aid organisations on the other hand altogether lack the ability to think in economic terms, Schmid argues.

Smiling Gecko is now trying to change the entire paradigm of how rural development is talked about, and is launching a conference called the Dialogue for Development in Liechtenstein at the end of the month. Schmid wants to the agenda for what type of projects private foundations and Corporate Social Responsibility programs and government aid should pour their money into, especially since the debate around CSR is shifting to the point where it’s moving from being a voluntary contribution to being mandatory.