Recently, I went to a rice mill with two bags of husked rice ready for milling. The millers knew it was business as usual, deliver husked rice and they unhusk it. To their surprise, I asked that they not only unhusk but also grade the rice. This request almost brought operations to a standstill.
As part of efforts to improve farmers incomes through value addition, the government established modern rice mills in Butaleja District. Their capacities are not confined to mere unhusking of rice but also winnowing, grading, removing foreign material as well as separating whole grain from broken rice.
However, it is quite disappointing to see that to date, despite the availability of such equipment, it is not being utilised to its full potential.
The farmers who bring in their rice, prefer to stop at unhusking. They claim that the rice will have less weight if they grade them, and also that their incomes do not improve despite grading. The middlemen still buy at the same price.
As a result, the grading component of these mills is idle. It took two hours of cleaning before they got the grader in a functional state to attend to my request. Apparently, it had been more than six months since the grader functioned.
This brings me to the question: Do our farmers really understand and appreciate the role of value addition?
I believe they understand what value addition is. This is why some of them no longer sell their produce at the farm gate and opt for value addition initiatives like milling.
What usually affects them in this regard is absence of technology that can enable them carry out even the most basic value addition initiatives.
On the other hand, I think that they do not appreciate value addition. If they did, they would be going out of their way to add value to their produce. For instance, where favourable technology exists, they would jump for it immediately.
Value addition can be as basic as sorting those beans before availing them to the market or drying rice on tarpaulin covers as opposed to spreading it out on the bare ground. For the case of rice farmers in Butaleja, they would be opting for the grading of rice as opposed to basic milling.
A deeper interaction with them reveals that the structure of the market does not encourage them to appreciate value addition.
The fact that a middleman will pay the same amount of money per kilo for basic milled rice as well as graded rice does not create the reward factor.
Grading means that some kilograms are lost due to the removal of foreign matter like stones. Farmers are sensitive to each and every kilo that comes out of the mill and would not want to lose it. This, therefore, implies that they can always settle for the status quo until the day the market rewards them for quality products.
What can the government do about this?
As the gospel of value addition is being preached and machinery installed in various regions of the country, the concerned agencies need to focus on change management in order to gravitate the attitudes of these farmers towards the new opportunities that value addition introduces.
The produce market needs to be restructured too in order to reflect value for quality.
Currently, only urban areas have agricultural produce marketing systems that reward on a qualitative basis. In the rural areas, it is business as usual, though it would be a very good initiative if the qualitative based value system was extended to the rural locales. The farmers would then start to appreciate value addition.
By the time I was done with my milling, I had four grades of rice. The first being whole grain rice forming the bulk of what I had milled. This was followed by the second, which had some broken rice as well as the third. The extremely broken tiny rice particles appeared in the 4th grade making it ideal for making porridge.
As a farmer who has access to the Kampala market, I am laying a network of retailers that I can supply different grades of rice at different prices thereby maximising my income. That is the exposure that our farmers need to have. Can cooperatives address this?
The author is an ICT and agribusiness consultant. Follow on Twitter @wirejames