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Feeding the Big Cities: Small Rice Parboilers in the Great Battle of Rice Markets

Because of its affordability, taste, ease and speed of preparation (compared to sorghum and millet), rice has become the preferred cereal of urban consumers in West Africa. It’s expected that urban consumers will account for 70% of the total population of West Africa by 2050, compared with 30% in the early 1990s (FAO, 2012). This rapid urbanization (4% per annum) and the growing role of rice in food consumption (one quarter of household food expenditure [WFP, 2008]) offer important business opportunities for local rice value chain actors and small rice parboilers like Djénébou Coulibaly, Bintou Traore, and Chata Koné. Each of the three charismatic ladies are president of small cooperatives of rice parboilers and part of a partnership supported by 2SCALE in the region of Sikasso (Mali).

This partnership, launched in 2012, is built on three agribusiness clusters involving 2,040 farmers, 233 parboilers, four agro-input suppliers, and two microfinance institutions. The shared ambition of these cooperatives of parboilers is to position themselves in a growing rice market, which commercial opportunities are proportional to the challenges. These challenges include access to highly coveted raw materials (paddy rice), access to input credits (fertilizers, seeds), low productivity (due to poor control of the technical route of rice), financing of modern steaming equipment, and above all, the burning issue of quality of parboiled rice, and therefore its competitiveness in a highly competitive environment. How can Djénébou and her peers strengthen their position on this growing, but highly disputed, business opportunity? Can they make steaming a sustainable source of income and an attractive employment opportunity? Together with 2SCALE, a four-phase strategy was developed to make this happen.

1. Increase raw material availability

In the villages of Zanso and Sélingué, most of the parboilers are also small rice producers. Because women in this regions do no inherit land, those producers utilize an average of 0.25 hectares (ha), on which they could barely harvest more than 400 kg.

“If they deduced their own consumption needs of this meager harvest, they usually would not have much left for steaming and marketing, and they had to buy the paddy in the open market,” explained Fatou Keita, who facilitates the rice partnership of 2SCALE in Mali.

To mitigate this constraint, the first step was to increase yields. To this end, 2SCALE trained 332 women on the technical route of the rice and on integrated soil fertility management.

“We really did not know much about the technical route of rice,” Bintou recalled. “We sowed on the fly, which made the weeding very difficult and did not favor the good development of the rice plants. We also used varieties of rice that were not homogeneous and did not give good yields because they were vulnerable to diseases.”

These technical trainings, and the intensive use of compost, reduced fertilizer expenses and improved the yield and quality of rice produced by women.

“With their 0.25 ha, some women have been able to double their yields to 800 kg, or even a ton in some cases,” Bintou said. But the increased availability of paddy does not fixe all the problem. It even raises new questions.

2. Increasing the production capacity of cooperatives

Prior to joining the 2SCALE program, Djénébou and her peers used 10 kg to 15 kg steaming pans — impractical tools that were very time and energy consuming.

“Producing even 200 kg of parboiled rice was very hard for us and would require more than two days of work,” Djénébou said. “This rudimentary equipment limited our ability to feed the market on a regular basis, and despite the small market, we were very often out of stock.”

To cope with the inadequate equipment, 2SCALE has solicited the help of local manufacturers who have designed an efficient, less energy-intensive, and faster baking kit. For the three cooperatives, the benefit of this technology is multiple: “With improved stoves and new pots, we reduced the cooking time with 50%, saved three times more wood, and we produce quality, well-cooked rice.” Bintou said. The steaming capacity of her cooperative has also increased from 200 kg to 350 kg of rice per week.

3. Ensure quality

Over the past decade many rice brands imported from more than 30 countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas made their debut in Mali. Many of them have commercial Hollywoodesque names such as “Big Joe,” “Big Mom,” “Uncle Sam” and “Yasmina.” They all feature competing flavors, packaging, distribution models, and advertising. Faced with these international giants, the steamed rice produced by Djénébou and her peers has long suffered from a bad reputation, amplified by popular songs that have damaged its brand image and limited its adoption by the general public.

“Traders who bought our rice could only sell it on the gold panning sites, where quality is not really a requirement,” Djénébou recalled. “But on the other markets, the parboiled rice was reproached for being fermented, for having an odor which cuts off the appetite, and even for containing pebbles and blackheads. No matter what effort was made, the result was almost invariable, especially when it came to the aroma.”

Building on experiences with women parboilers in other countries, notably in Benin and later in Burkina Faso, 2CSALE has developed and standardized a method of soaking, cooking, and drying rice in both the shade and in light, with easily identifiable visual indicators. This process now gives steamed rice a rich aroma and creamy texture.

“More than 300 women have now mastered these new techniques, and we can produce bigger volumes and higher quality,” Bintou said. “This knowledge is worth gold, and it’s something we are really proud of.”

4. Change perceptions

In terms of competitive advantages, steamed rice is recognizable for a set of qualities that should distinguish it from competition, but which remain largely unknown to the general public. Its nutritional value is estimated to be two to three times higher than that of white rice, with a high density of B vitamins, and a high fiber content which is ideal for digestion, regulation of blood sugar, and protection of the digestive tract against food irritants.

“Because it’s already pre-cooked, steamed rice preparation is faster than white rice,” Djénébou added. “It’s cooking, therefore, requires less energy and time.”

Despite all these virtues, the parboiled rice was ignored by a large part of the rural and urban consumers. To reverse this trend, 2SCALE solicited the support of four community radio stations, which, after being sensitized, agreed to deploy a vast information and advertising campaign focused on the nutritional and other health benefits of parboiled rice. The radio campaign was supported by a poster campaign which praised the merits of the new product in major rural markets.

“After two months of intense publicity, demand in local markets was triggered, and as a quality premium, we sold the rice at F CFA 350/kg (USD 0.57/kg), compared to F CFA 300 (USD 0.49) in the past.” Chata explained.

However, the road for Djénébou and her peers to gain ground against the competition’s commercial and media weight is long. Currently, their scope of action is limited to the local markets of the villages of the Sikasso region, and mainly to gold panning sites. Their ambition is to reach supermarkets in urban centers, including Bamako, but this requires investments beyond the current financial capacity of cooperatives. Djénébou is nevertheless confident: “Our daily production capacity has increased from 50 kg to 250 kg of rice per week, and some women have managed to improve their income from F CFA 20,000 to 35,000 (USD 32.45 to 56.80). “Moreover, 2SCALE has built our capacities in cooperative management, and we learned to keep records,to calculate production costs, and to organize collective bulk and sales. Now we are linked with financial institutions, which began to give us small amounts of credit. Although it’s not yet enough to invest in more modern equipment, we do hope to get there and penetrate the supermarkets. It’s a matter of time. If you look at where we have come from, there can be no doubt that we will get there,” said Djenebou.

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