A program for improving Pakistan’s basmati rice for the export market is a shining example of how the private and public sectors can work together to make a difference.
An improvement program in Pakistan for aromatic basmati rice has become the most complete contract farmer system that Joe Rickman has seen in his more than two decades of working with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in various capacities. Involved in the program over the last five years, Mr. Rickman, currently an IRRI consultant, believes it shows how the private and public sectors can work together to make a difference.
“In the program, farmers are being rewarded for growing high-quality basmati rice,” he says. “At the same time, the effort is enabling Rice Partners Limited (RPL), an international rice milling company headquartered in Islamabad, to process and sell the product to the European operation of the international food conglomerate Mars, Inc., which is happy to have a robust, high-quality rice supply route in place while supporting small-scale farmers.”
Bringing farmers and market together
The program has brought together hundreds of basmati rice farmers in Punjab province, RPL with its farmer contacts, Mars with its market knowledge, and IRRI with its technical knowledge and skills. It has resulted in the improved quantity and quality of Pakistan’s basmati rice production. Started in 2011 with just 27 contract farmers, the program grew to include 428 farmers in 2015.
“We are on track to have more than 1,000 contract farmers and sell 20,000 tons of brown basmati rice in Europe via Mars’ Uncle Ben’s® products by 2017,”says Mr. Rickman.” After that, we hope to reach out to an additional 15,000 basmati growers in Pakistan.”
Private and public sectors working together
The program was intensified when IRRI first began working with Mars and RPL. In October 2013, 12 associates from the Mars Ambassador Program came to IRRI to learn firsthand how to grow rice and help farmers improve crop yield and quality. Then, after “having walked in the farmers’ shoes” by preparing the land, planting, harvesting, processing, and milling rice at IRRI, they—together with RPL officials and IRRI experts—developed a strategic plan for the improvement program. The aim was to enhance the basmati farmers’ productivity and the quality of their crop while, at the same time, increasing their efficiency in input use, especially water and chemicals.
Also in 2013, Bayer Crop Science assisted with financial support and provided farmer training on pest management.
RPL oversees and supports the rice production through a contract grower scheme, procures the paddy from the individual farmers if it meets standards, and then ages and mills the brown rice before selling it to Mars for the European market. Very importantly, farmers receive cash benefits for their quality rice as a premium over the regular market price rate and they enjoy being paid immediately after harvest.
Keeping records, setting benchmarks—linchpins of the program
“RPL currently employs eight quality control officers (QCs), which I trained by helping them to develop a rice check and log book system,” says Mr. Rickman. “These QCs, such as Farooq Ahmed and M. Yaqoob (photo), visit farmers every 7-10 days to check on the crop, give advice, and record what is happening in the field. They record all inputs and keep them on a central log book and database at RPL.”
Experience has shown that one QC officer can effectively work with up to 50 farmers. “If we increase the number of farmers above 50 per QC then we will decrease the effectiveness of the program and quality will suffer,” says Ali Tariq, RPL’s CEO. “Obviously, our target is more farmers. But to do this, we will need to increase our existing resources as it is already quite a tough job to monitor the farmers we already have.”
IRRI and RPL have developed a rice crop check system, which is used as a benchmark for both farmers and QCs to follow. “The farmers are supported by recommendations on all agronomic and harvesting aspects of rice farming,” says Mr. Rickman. “Because aflatoxin and pesticide residues have been the major reasons that grain lots are rejected in Europe, the check system has been introduced to alleviate these problems by providing farmers with information on economic injury levels, withholding period after spraying, and recommendations on harvesting and drying.”
Using these quality standards for the paddy, RPL has established the purchase standards for basmati rice. If a contract grower does not meet these standards, the crop is rejected and will then have to be sold on the local markets at a reduced price.
“Farmers are developing more sustainable agronomic practices that positively impact on productivity and the environment while we are obtaining a high-quality and safe food product delivered to our factories and customers in Europe,” says Luc Beerens, European procurement manager at Mars in Rotterdam. “It is also an opportunity to test and audit the Sustainable Rice Platform standards in the real world. With basmati yields in Pakistan being currently half of those in neighboring India, it is a perfect opportunity to make a huge difference.”
The success of the program is already evident. “When the program first started, the rejection rate of basmati rice shipments into Europe was as high as 80%,” says Mr. Beerens. “In 2013 and 2014, this was reduced to 25% and 8%, respectively.”
Farmers have already benefited financially. “Those who follow the guidelines and sell their crop to RPL receive a 10% premium above local market value,” points out Mr. Tariq. “And they are paid within 24-36 hours of delivery with all transportation costs covered by RPL.”
Farmers getting in the queue
With this level of support offered by RPL and Mars, it is little wonder that new farmers are lining up on a daily basis to join the program. In 2015, RPL signed up two women farmers and is continuing to look for ways to improve the gender balance of the program.
“Simple things such as counting the number of seedlings established, weed management advice, and understanding the quality traits have all contributed to the farmers’ knowledge,” says Mr. Rickman. “They also look forward to the security of signing a new contract with RPL each year.”
Indeed, local farmers like the program. “I’ve been an RPL contract farmer for the last four years,” says Mubasahar Naveed Wagha from Khairpur Mallian Village. “RPL respects us. Their QCs visit us regularly during both the sowing and harvesting seasons. We get very good prices and their method of payment is swift. God bless them all.”
“For the three years that I have been a contract farmer, the RPL team has guided me on proper farming practices,” says Asghar Mujahid also from Khairpur Mallian. “They gave me free seeds. They visited me weekly and gave me fruitful advice through their training programs and rice experts. My yield has improved. We are thankful that RPL has liberated us from the middlemen. I am especially thankful to Mr. Tariq who has done a lot for our village.”
“While we feel that many of the quality issues that we initially faced have been overcome, we now need to start working on getting higher mill outs from the rice in farmers’ fields,” says Mr. Rickman. “At the moment, RPL is exporting less than 45% of the combined-harvested rice. Our aim is to get this up to 60% by working more closely with the combine operators and farmers during harvest and the RPL rice mill during processing.”
One major part of the problem is that the crop is being harvested too early, which increases the number of green and immature grains. Also, many combines are not set up and/or operated correctly, resulting in threshing losses of more than 200 kilograms per hectare and a harvest that contains damaged grains and trash.
RPL will be involving more farmers in its small demonstration and field-testing site. Here, comparisons can be made between different production systems such as transplanted and seed-drilled rice, planting rates and land levelling. “In the future, we will introduce variety testing, which will add further to the knowledge available to the farmers,” says Mr. Tariq.
By working in this program with the RPL-Mars-IRRI team, farmers have already become keenly aware that quality seed is an important issue. Mars’ European market requires that the super basmati rice must be 95% DNA pure, which means that seed must be 98% pure.
In 2016, RPL has looked at ways to begin the production of its own breeder seed to ensure that the 98% purity level can be maintained. And IRRI has been working on introducing disease resistance and submergence tolerance into the existing basmati varieties.
Mr. Hettel is an IRRI consultant based in the Philippines.