Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rice Farmer Meets Rice Farmers

A few days ago I had the privilege of accompanying Stanley Reed on a tour of rice farming in Rwanda. (For those who do not know, Stanley is a large-scale cotton and rice farmer in Arkansas, and the former President of the Farm Bureau, and the former Chairman of the Board of Trustees of University of Arkansas, and most importantly by far, the very proud father of our Anna Reed.) The tour was led by Fran├žois NSENGIYUMVA of the Ministry of Trade & Industry.

Rwanda is committed to working its own way out of poverty by use of innovation, best practices, hard work, and cooperation,… literally. We visited a marshland region where people began to grow rice on very small plots in 1966 to serve the then existing small Chinese population in Rwanda. In 2003, the community of small rice growers began to draw together and in 2006 they became a legally recognized “cooperative” that now encompasses 700 hectares (that is, 1,730 acres) of race paddies. They call their cooperative "ABAHUZABIKORWA" which means "We come together in what we do." There are 2,750 member farmers in ABAHUZABIKORWA, who harvest two rice crops per year, the “big season” and the “short season”. During the short season, water resources are less abundant so some of the land is planted in tomatoes, beans, or other crops that do not require flood irrigation as required by rice.

The cooperative has a local President, Vice President, Secretary, and Board of six advisors, thereby constituting its nine-member Board. It also has a three-member “Internal Audit Committee”. The 1,730 acres and 2,750 member-farmers are divided into 13 Zones, each with its own elected leader.

As a student of our fallen human nature, I asked what motivates the 2,750 member farmers to work so hard on a cooperative farm. I was not surprised to learn that each member farmer works his/her own designated plot, and reaps both the rice and the benefits produced thereon. I wish that human nature were otherwise, but it is not (certainly not mine). I am told that other countries (e.g. Cambodia) attempted rice cooperatives that were truly a communal effort, with very disappointing results and meager productivity.

The cooperative model greatly benefits the small subsistence farmers of Rwanda, and is encouraged, promoted, and facilitated under the great leadership of Agnes Kalibata, the Minister of Agriculture. So what is in it for the participating small farmer? Plenty:

1. Education and training in “best practices”.

2. Easy access to superior inputs: best seeds and fertilizers.

3. Economies of scale for the purchase of such imputs.

4. Easy access to credit and development of a sound relationship with a financial institution.

5. Participation in otherwise unaffordable infrastructure: development and management of water resources, electricity, etc.

6. Collective bargaining/marketing of the harvest.

7. Participation in the appreciation of infrastructure and other capital assets of the cooperative. A member can sell his/her share in the cooperative, like selling a country club membership.

Not long ago the farmers reaped five (5) metric tons per hectare (per season, two seasons per year). Now, due to best practices and other benefits made available through the cooperative, farmers are reaping seven (7) metric tons per hectare. They are confident that they can increase production to eight or even nine metric tons per hectare.

In addition to having their particular plot of rice which they work upon within the structure of the cooperative, most members also have hillside land on which they grow household food, or keep cows, or operate a micro-enterprise to further supplement their family’s income.

During our drive home, Stanley stops to inspect a Rwandan coffee crop