Rice is increasingly becoming the staple food of majority of people. It is being considered the number one source of livelihood for the majority of farmers in eastern Uganda.
The increased production and improving technologies are making farmers gain more from their activities. However, intensive production is equally affecting the majority of smallholder farmers, who continue to lose a sizable amount of their harvest through postharvest losses.
Postharvest handling losses have continuously remained a thorn in the profitability of agriculture contributing to hunger, poverty and food insecurity. According to the 2019 Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao) report, annual postharvest losses stand at 17.6 per cent and about 13.5 per cent of grains especially maize, millet and rice produced in the country.
Birth of an idea
Merekit is an important hub for rice growing, acting as a collection centre for Bugisu, Namisindwa, Butaleja, Tororo and Bulambuli districts.
In 1998, 46-year-old businessman Richard Ochari and two partners Stella Awino and Harriet Acharit, discovered a way to cut the losses.
The Senior One dropout, whose catalogue of petty work includes being employed as a cattle keeper in Kenya, a cereals street vendor and pork seller in Kampala before he was conned of all his life savings in a ‘gold’ scam, has become a lifetime produce buyer and successful entrepreneur in Tororo.
The father of 16, owns St Richard Group of Companies, a family business, which has a primary school and a pharmacy in Malaba, among other side businesses.
To grow his business, Ochari thought of establishing a free drying and storage facility for farmers in the newly created Merekit Town Board. The move was not only going to be beneficial to the farmers but also the businessman, who would encourage farmers to use his yard and charge milling fees or buy their produce.
“Not all farmers want to mill their rice produce immediately,” Hellen Nawanga, the managing partner of St Richard’s Group of Companies, says.
His journey began when he bought a single stage rice mill and a drying yard of 3,500m2. Today, he has expanded the drying yard to 5,600m2 which at its peak can be used to dry 20MT at once every day.
And instead of charging farmers for using the yard, since 2015, he offers even free storage facilities including labour to help in drying as well as a moisture metre to guard against fungal and insect problems as well as respiration and germination in storage.
But the single stage mill had its own shortcomings including a high rate of broken rice. Of the harvested 100 kilogrammes of paddy, about 55 kilogrammes would remain after milling yet it would contain stones and sometimes dust.
A new journey
Buoyed by the success, Ochari was chosen by the Tororo District Production Office as a recipient of a modern three-stage milling machine in partnership with the International Fertiliser Development Centre (IFDC). The science-based organisation works to alleviate hunger by introducing improved agricultural practices and fertiliser technologies and by linking farmers to markets.
Through the Resilient Efficient Agribusiness Chains (Reach) project, funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, IFDC offered 33 per cent of the funding while St Richards footed the rest of the bill of Shs260m.
By using the market system development approach, IFDC identified St Richard’s with an aim of improving quality starting from production, marketing and post-market activities. By partnering with agronomists from Crop Life, IFDC facilitated training of village agents on post-harvest practices in April 2019. The Reach Project also advocates for inclusivity. “The impact is now beyond good agricultural practices but also financial management. After sensitisation on family finances, more husbands now jointly work with their wives. The project put emphasis on change agents in order to prevent men from using the money earned from rice harvests to marry other women or even for drinking as has been the norm during the harvest period,” Ronald Lemo, the Regional Coordinator, Eastern Uganda, said.
Rice processing is now changing rapidly in Merekit. The machine is reputed for minimising grain breakage while producing uniformly polished grain.
According to Nawanga, St Richard’s produces sufficiently milled rice free of husks, stones, and other non-grain materials.
“The farmers get more from their harvest because after processing they can remain with about 65-70 kilogramme ready to consume rice free of stones,” she says.
The area has hundreds of village-level systems, most of them very close to farmers and by offering clean rice, Ochari remains in business. There is more to mere clean rice. More earnings are obtained from the sale of bran to pig farmers at Shs600 a kilogramme while broken rice is sold independently at Shs1,000 per kilo.
Village agent approach
Using a simple principal agent model, Ochari has a network which enables trading and training on postharvest handling. “These commission agents help us reach more farmers and we are able to ensure the quality of the rice we receive,” Nawanga says. They employ 30 village agents and 14 permanent workers. During the harvest time, up to 30 casual labourers are hired to help farmers in drying and winnowing at the company’s cost. The company is able to reach out to more than 5,000 farmers every season. The agents identify farmers that can sell their produce to the company with incentives including interest-free loans and a 10 per cent commission on paddy brought to the company. Norah Auma, an agent based in Kachinga village, is a widow taking care of nine children. She says that the approach has enabled her to expand her farm to three acres.
“I have access to loans from the company and this helps me hire land when I need more produce. Being a village agent, deductions are made on my harvest at affordable terms. I no longer lack which has helped me send my children to school,” Auma, whose last born is in Senior Six, said.