Entrepreneur with close ties to Cambodia’s ruling party is eager for his country to embrace new technology
(Ma Xuejing / China Daily)
He might not be related to the Cambodian royal family but Peter Sok Puthyvuth’s blood is as blue as a commoner’s could possibly be.
On paper, he is the CEO of the SOMA Group. But Puthyvuth is also the eldest son of the late deputy prime minister, Sok An, and the son-in-law of the current prime minister, Hun Sen.
Despite his connections, the 37-year-old has a down-to-earth personality with a single-minded focus on Cambodia’s development.
Puthyvuth has already been contributing to his country’s growth through SOMA. This year, it is 10 years since the founding of the vastly diversified group.
It dabbles in everything from agriculture to construction, infrastructure, trading, information and communications technology, and even education.
The synergies between the group’s various operations are perhaps not immediately obvious, but Puthyvuth noted: “It started from one question: How can I contribute to the development of Cambodia?”
SOMA has its roots in agriculture, as it was started by his father, a self-professed “weekend farmer”, who wanted a closed ecosystem that produces zero waste.
“He used to grow jackfruit and coconuts. From there, he expanded into (rearing) goats to eat the leaves that fell off the trees, and then cattle for their manure. He even dug ponds to retain water, where he reared fish,” said Puthyvuth.
When he returned to Cambodia after studying overseas, Puthyvuth decided to help consolidate the farming operations and, at the same time, build an agriculture-based business.
In the interest of modernization, he ended up assembling a team that developed expertise in construction.
SOMA Construction & Development Co, which started off by building chicken coops and an agriculture office, soon began to successfully bid for other projects.
The water treatment business was a spin-off to meet the needs of the agriculture unit, SOMA Farm. As the latter modernized, upgraded and became automated, there was an increasing need to develop good-quality irrigation.
“We built a water treatment plant using Japanese technology. We found the water was of such good quality that we decided to expand it to supply the village and, later, the wider community.”
Likewise, SOMA’s move into education was done with the aim of training grassroots talent to meet its needs. Eventually, in 2007, the group started the University of Puthisastra in Phnom Penh.
Today, the private university has six faculties and offers undergraduate programs, including health sciences, rural development and agriculture, and science and technology.
Because all of the group’s businesses need energy, it was also natural to diversify into power transmission.
(Cambodia) Power Transmission Lines Co, which is active in northwest Cambodia, developed the country’s first privately owned transmission line. The project was partially financed by a consortium of international lenders that also included the Asian Development Bank.
“From there, we built a team to develop renewable energy sources, such as biomass and solar,” Puthyvuth said.
The operations of SOMA Energy Co include a venture with United States-based multinational General Electric — to use rice husks, wood chips and other solid agricultural waste products to generate biomass power.
“The businesses might look disparate but they are all interconnected and related to the development of SOMA Group,” Puthyvuth explained.
Today, the group operates in nine provinces and employs more than 1,000 staff.
Puthyvuth still fondly remembers the early days when he was very “hands-on” in the fields, harvesting the jackfruit from the trees alongside the workers.
Recalling his proudest achievement to date, he said: “I managed to demonstrate that with the right environment, the team can compete and do things that the country, industry and individuals are proud of.
“We have contributed to society,” he said, and proven that the business is more than just about making money — it is “a way to solve problems”.
The vision of SOMA is to take Cambodian business into the future.
Puthyvuth said he was motivated by his experience overseas, especially in the US, the United Kingdom and France. He noted how these countries developed and adopted new ideas.
“When I came back and started building the business, people said I was dreaming. But that motivated me to work hard. I feel that Cambodia has the sense of wanting to catch up and I have the opportunity to help it do that.”
Having close ties to the ruling party certainly helped. But Puthyvuth added that all his requests and ventures still need to go through the proper channels.
For instance, when he tried to introduce to Cambodia the idea of using biomass energy, he managed to get the minister in charge of the Electricity Authority of Cambodia to explore it.
But why not just ask his father-in-law, say over a family meal, for help?
Puthyvuth chuckled and said: “I don’t want to annoy him with pesky problems. I have to be selective about what I say to him, to retain my credibility. I try not to bring business into family time.”
The country has come a long way. When he first returned to Cambodia in 2004, the environment was far from ideal for entrepreneurship.
Among the challenges Puthyvuth faced was the lack of a mentor. He had to learn and do everything himself.
However, he said his family background helped. “They let me do things my way, giving me room and space to do things. When I needed to talk to people, I was given access.”
Through a combination of persistence, creativity and the willingness to move out of his comfort zone, Puthyvuth pushed ahead. For instance, he would invite friends from various industries, who know what they are doing, to teach him.
The first multinational company that SOMA worked with was Bangkok-based conglomerate CP Group, Thailand’s largest private company. For Puthyvuth, the desire to collaborate with CP meant he had to learn its business model, the finer points of contract law, and “how to put things such as a computer system together”.
Aside from clocking in the hours at SOMA, Puthyvuth is also involved in the ICT Federation of Cambodia and the Cambodia Rice Federation. With the former, he wants to be part of bringing the fourth industrial revolution to the country.
“I want Cambodia to have a better, safer cyberspace, better connectivity between telcos and Internet service providers, for banks to be more integrated. I want things like increased connection speeds, more fiber optics on the ground and connectivity for the rural population.”
The work that he is doing in Cambodia dovetails with what he sees as the future of SOMA — one dominated by technology.
“We will see how to support and speed up the fourth industrial revolution in Cambodia. I hope we can become a smart nation. The bigger the problem is, the bigger the opportunity.”
He envisions integrating technology into everything that the country does, even in agriculture. “I want to support a community of dreamers and doers to do better.”
Puthyvuth’s involvement in the Cambodia Rice Federation also has a strong technology slant. He is working with Grow Asia, a World Economic Forum initiative established in collaboration with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Secretariat, that seeks to modernize farming.
Grow Asia aims to help smallholder farmers increase their productivity, profitability and environmental sustainability through access to knowledge, technology, finance and markets.
Puthyvuth said some of the plans are to attract youth to the industry, protect the soil for sustainability and build a planet-friendly future.
“I want us to use cool solutions such as iPads and computers to monitor farms, so one person can manage a larger area of the farm more effectively,” he said.
“It will help to improve the quality of life in the countryside. There are many successful cases in the region that we can learn from.”
Puthyvuth’s plans are ambitious, but he is staying the course and does not want to deviate from it.
When asked if he has any intentions of following in his late father’s footsteps, he is quick to respond: “I hate politics.
“I just want to put teams together to work on the ground and help solve problems. That is what I enjoy most.”
Peter Sok Puthyvuth
CEO, SOMA Group
2002: Bachelor of arts, Virginia Military Institute, United States
2014-present: President, ICT Federation of Cambodia
2014-present: President, Cambodia Rice Federation
2007-present: CEO, SOMA Group
What would you say to potential investors looking at Cambodia?
There is a lot of opportunity here. What I am seeing right now is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope peace and stability reign so that there will be a chance for Cambodia to leapfrog over other countries and, in doing so, make it a better place. For now, investors can get involved in infrastructure projects, such as financial, physical, health or education. Once these are in place, then Cambodia can grow to the next phase.
What do you and your wife like to do for leisure?
We spend a lot of time with our children — we have four, aged between 2 and 11 years. I enjoy the outdoors, so we take them camping. Any chance we have, we also take our utility vehicle out into the countryside. My wife and I enjoy traveling as well, such as going diving in places like Thailand and Bali.
Why did you decide to come back to Cambodia in 2004?
Home is where the heart is. All my family is in Cambodia. My parents worked hard to help the country. We, as the next generation, have the obligation to go out to study, then come back and help.
Year of birth: 1980