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The Four Faces of the 90kg Rice Challenge

Our Malawi evening on Monday 22 June brought together, almost by accident, four people who embody the 90kg Rice Challenge – the farmer (Howard), the importer (John Riches of JTS), the retailer (Kerry of Just Fair Trade) and the campaigner (Rosemary of the Hinckley and Bosworth Fairtrade Forum).

The farmer

Back home in Karonga, northern Malawi, Howard has three-and-a-half acres (roughly equivalent to three full-size football pitches) in which to grow rice, alongside the maize, cassava and other crops which feed his family. In December the fields are ploughed, ready for the rainy season; the soil is broken up either by hand using a hoe (a much more substantial tool than our garden equivalent!) or by a plough driven by a pair of oxen. Afternoon temperatures of around 35⁰C mean that Howard gets up at around 3am and works with his oxen until mid-morning when he takes them home and out of the heat, continuing the work by hand. After a break at noon, Howard returns to the field and continues working until around 5pm and his day ends around 7 or 8pm after an evening meal.

Once the rains have come, the field is ready for planting. Because rice needs a large amount of water in order to thrive, timing is everything. Planting is a slow process but has to be completed while the ground is still wet and muddy. Rice takes around three months to reach maturity at which point it is ready to harvest, thresh, mill and take to market.

Howard has been a member of the Kaporo Smallholder Farmers Association (KASFA), itself part of the National Association of Smallholder Famers of Malawi (NASFAM), for several years and the benefits to him, and other farmers like him, are significant and impressive. They start right at the beginning of the process, with the provision of high quality rice seed which the association itself has helped to produce. Seed is provided to farmers on a credit basis – they are given 20kg of seed and at the end of the season are required to return 40kg to the association from a yield of around one metric tonne (1000kg) per acre planted. You can find out more about how the associations are organised here.

Credit is also provided to enable farmers to buy ox carts; the first instalment is paid on delivery of the cart with a further two payable after the next two harvests. The structure of the association encourages community accountability; if repayments are not forthcoming, other association members are unable to buy ox carts themselves.

And the advantages of being part of an association continue when the rice goes to market where accurate scales and a fixed, fair price ensure that members aren’t vulnerable to unscrupulous middle men.

But associations like KASFA, and particularly those with board members as visionary as Howard, are always looking for new ways to equip and train their farmers. Howard has a vision to make small rotavators widely available, something he believes will transform the experience of ploughing and preparing the ground. Work is also taking place on the development of a number of pedal-operated threshing machines based on a 1820s Orkney design! These two innovations could significantly reduce both the time and effort involved in the production of rice, but both require a sustainable, growing market for the rice that is produced as a result.

The importer

But there is limited value in developing machinery which reduces labour and increases yields unless the market for the rice also grows. This is where organisations like Just Trading Scotland (JTS) take up the baton.

JTS import rice produced by NASFAM farmers to Scotland where it is bagged and labelled. Using their contacts they then market the rice to retailers, schools, churches and other community groups. The 90kg Rice Challenge was one of their earliest marketing initiatives, developed in response to the arrival of a huge quantity of rice but with no market ready to buy it!

While working with community groups is a valuable part of JTS’s business model, retailers are key to the effective distribution of rice more widely. The team at JTS are currently in negotiations with a major supermarket chain, exploring the possibility of distributing rice nationwide through their stores. This kind of development could have a transformational impact on farmers like Howard.

The retailer

But small independent retailers – particularly those with a specifc commitment to fair trade – will always be key to organisations like JTS as they have both the motivation and scope to share the story of the rice. Here at Just Fair Trade we take our responsibility to farmers like Howard incredibly seriously and are committed to finding ways not just to sell their products but to share the message. That means that when we get the chance to meet a farmer we want to share that opportunity with others, whether in local schools or churches, or at the shop itself.

The campaigner

But as well as stocking the rice ourselves, we’ve worked alongside others to enable them to undertake the 90kg Rice Challenge in their own communities. These campaigners are the vital final link in the chain! Their passion for fair trade – and, in this case, for rice! – means that they’re always on the hunt for ways to get the message and the product out. For the Hinckley and Bosworth Fairtrade Forum this means participating in a local Alternativity, offering rice as an alternative Christmas gift! Since 2008 they have sold a whopping 900kg of rice, enabling ten Malawian rice farmers’ children to attend secondary school for a year!

So these are the four faces of the 90kg Rice Challenge – the farmer, the importer, the retailer and the campaigner. Each link in the chain has vital and unique things to offer and, as is so often the case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.