What is a vital aspect of the social life of many Congolese? That’s right, a nice glass of beer! The Bralima brewery has a plant in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province. The ingredients of their Primus beer are listed on the label: water, malt, hops, sugar and… rice. Up until about ten years ago most of that rice came from Asia and was imported by Pakistani traders. In 2006, after the Great African War, Bralima decided to start buying as much rice as possible from farmers in the region. To do this, the same Pakistani traders were brought in. After all, they have the warehouses and also the capital, which they lend to middlemen to enable them to purchase the rice from the farmers. The brewery’s ultimate goal is to buy all its rice locally.
But not all rice is used to brew beer. Rice is also a daily staple of many Congolese. The market is huge, especially in Bukavu. Consumers prefer fresh local rice, provided it tastes good and is reasonably priced. At the moment, however, they mainly buy imported rice from countries like Pakistan and neighbouring Tanzania. “Pakistani rice is often years old before it even gets here,” says Ketal, manager of wholesaler DATCO in Bukavu. “So in the last couple of years we’ve been buying more Tanzanian rice, but we’d really prefer to use our own local rice.”
That opens up a window of opportunity for small farmers in the area. For the past few years Rikolto (previously known as VECO) has been supporting small cooperatives of rice farmers in the Ruzizi Plain, a vast area on the border with Rwanda and Burundi, ideal for growing rice. They can market Ruzizi rice, provided that it is of the same quality as imported rice. It should be nicely packed, contain a minimum amount of broken rice grains and no stones or sand.
But there is a lot to do before they reach that stage. And not just in terms of farming techniques and quality improvement: above all, the farmers’ cooperatives have to become rice businesses. The Ruzizi area saw a massive influx of refugees from Rwanda and even Congo itself in the past few decades. Many relief agencies and other NGOs worked there over a long period, with the result that the local population became accustomed to foreign aid. Various farmers’ organisations were set up to enable people to receive this outside assistance. Although some of these organisations provide useful services to their members (e.g. training), they are not able to function autonomously if the foreign aid ceases.
Rikolto selected eight rice farmer cooperatives with the potential to supply the local market with tasty rice – and make a good living out of it. Currently, 1 ha of rice brings in about 2,250 euros a year, but the cost price is also high, fluctuating at around 2,000 euros. Moreover, many farmers work only a quarter of a hectare.
We store rice in our homes, which isn’t ideal, as rats can gnaw their way through the sacks. What’s more, it causes envy amongst our neighbours: everyone knows when the rice has been sold and we’ve got money in our pockets
United we stand – that’s our motto to conquer the rice market
Etienne Mayenga Mvula
Manager | COOPABA
Some families cultivate rice, others don’t. You can see the difference in the children: those from rice-growing families are better fed, because there’s more money to buy food. More and more members of our cooperative are also building their own stone houses to replace their mud huts.
Ruzizi rice will be able to compete with imported rice and conquer the urban markets in South Kivu.
I learned a new way of growing rice. At first my neighbours laughed at me, because the technique involves planting out one seedling (instead of a bunch). But my yield is now so much bigger than what my neighbours can produce on their fields. Now they’re envious.
Rikolto supports eight rice cooperatives.
In total, they have 639 members (398 men and 241 women).