Rice is a jealousy crop. To get a bumper harvest, the farmer has to give the crop undivided attention. From nursery bed setting, to harvesting, rice requires constant monitoring, like a patient on drip. It takes just a few hours of excessive flooding, for instance, to wipe out several months of hard work.
That is why Thabisa Namudhola, cannot afford take on another crop to supplement her income from rice growing. Instead, she tries to maximise her earnings from rice by processing it into high-value products like baby food.
Thabisa is part of a group of 20 rice farmers in Busowe, Buwunga Sub County, Bugiri District, who add value to their rice through branding and packaging. They have been doing this for two years, and its already paying off.
Through their group, Kibimba Out growers Association, the farmers also collectively market their rice products directly through selected agents in urban centres.
The association came into being eight years ago, following a tour of the Kibimba rice scheme and factory, by a group of rice farmers from Busowe parish.
During the tour, the farmers learnt that the factory owners wanted outgrowers to supply rice. “We were excited over the ready market so we quickly organised ourselves into a group and we named it Kibimba Outgrowers, with the aim of selling our rice to the factory,” recalls the group chairman Balam Waiswa.
Their excitement was however short-lived. “The prices offered at the factory were too low, so we had to look for markets elsewhere,” he adds.
During their tour, the farmers had noted that processing rice was not as complicated as they had always thought. They also discovered that rice could be processed into different products. “Nothing was being thrown away at the factory, even the husks were utilised as fuel.” Thabisa relives her first visit to a rice processing factory.
The farmers also realised the importance of packaging and branding in value addition. Rice bought from farmers at Shs1,500-Shs2,000 would be sold at Shs4,500 after grading, packing and branding.
“I bought a packet of Tilda rice and closely studied the packaging material used and the labelling, trying to get some ideas,” reveals Waiswa, the brain behind most of the group’s innovations.
He also attended several trainings in value addition to gain more knowledge. That knowledge came in handy, when the group eventually decided to go into processing baby food, which is currently their flagship product.
The baby food is made out of broken rice, which is commonly treated as reject. They mill it into powder and pack it in half-kilogramme packets for convenience. A packet is sold at Shs2,000.
There is a ready market for baby food within the community, where cases of malnutrition among children are very common. “We market the baby food through community health workers, who recommend it to parents of malnourished babies,” explains Namudhola.
They also have marketing agents in Nankoma, Busembatia, Kaliro, Mutelere and Namutumba trading centres.
The group has been processing baby food for two years now. During that time, demand for the product has been growing steadily from a few hundred kilogrammes per season to several tonnes.
Rice growing in eastern Uganda started in the early 1970’s in the government-owned Kibimba rice scheme located on either side of the main Jinja to Tororo highway near Bugiri Town. From there it spread to other parts of the region and eventually to the rest of the country.
Rice growing outside the rice scheme started in the 1980s. Before that, farmers in the area grew cassava, sweet potatoes, bananas, sorghum and millet. Gradually, they switched to rice.
Wetlands in Bugiri, Namutumba and Pallisa districts were cleared to grow rice. The first rice mills were set up in Busembatia Town to process the rapidly increasing volumes of rice grown in the area.
Initially, the yields were high, with farmers getting 1.8–2 tonnes per hectare (2.5 acres). However, with time, the yields started dropping, as the continuously tilled soils lost their natural fertility.
Soon farmers were harvesting less than half of what they were getting before, from the same area of land.
To compensate for the declining yields, farmers kept clearing more wetlands, which led to conflicts between communities over land.
Getting a quality product
Since 2012, International Fertiliser Development Centre (IFDC) has been working with farmers on how to get higher yields without necessarily clearing more land.
They are doing this through regular training; where farmers learn how to select the right seeds, make proper nursery beds, level the field before planting, apply the right fertilisers at the right time in the right quantities, planting in straight lines, timely weeding, harvesting plus post harvesting handling. These are things farmers take for granted, without realising they affected yields.
Now, they know that to get a quality product that will get a good price on the market, they have to pay attention to details like thrashing the rice on the day it is harvested, and drying on a rack, or at least on a tarpaulin, not bare ground.
The organisation is also encouraging farmers to form groups like Kibimba outgrowers, through which they can access quality inputs and get knowledge in best agronomic practices, post-harvest handling, value addition plus financial management.
Kibimba outgrower is actually serving as a model for other rice farmers groups in the area.
Besides adding value to their rice, the group also operate a saving scheme, to which every member contributes between Shs2,000 and Shs10,000 a week. Members can also borrow from the scheme an interest rate of 10 per cent per month.
The group is investing part of their savings in valuable assets such as land and machinery.
They have acquired an acre of land worth Sh3m and a brand new rice mill worth Sh5m, which will be another source of income, once installed.
“We will buy rice from other farmers, to ensure our mill is busy,” says Waiswa.
The rice husks from the milling process will be used to make various products ranging from animal feeds to charcoal briquettes.
The group also plans to set up rice drying racks and invest in specialised grading machines, in order to improve the quality of their products. “We have very high ambitions, our target is to be the leading local rice brand, competing at the same level as Tilda,” asserts the group chairman as he projects into the future.