Sustainable rice

From rice to rice+: Rikolto’s holistic approach to sustainable farming

October 13, 2023
Catur Utami Dewi
Sustainable Rice | Global director

The importance of rice and rice production

An adequate supply of quality rice is of geopolitical importance, as it is the staple food for some 3.5 billion people and provides a livelihood for around 20% of the world’s population. Most rice is produced by smallholder farmers who own less than two hectares of land. To transform the rice sector and help the food system to become more sustainable, we need to enhance farmers’ income and resilience by sustainably increasing their productivity and facilitating their access to the market. These measures are essential to feed consumers and meet the global rice demand, which is expected to increase by 25% by 2050.

Rikolto’s sustainable global rice programme:

Rikolto’s global rice programme focuses on three main areas:

  • Sustainable rice production: Rikolto is committed to enabling farmers to adopt practices that sustainably increase rice productivity while reducing environmental impact. We also view rice farms as comprehensive farming systems that have rice as their main crop.
  • Market inclusion for consumers and producers: Our efforts extend to ensuring that consumers benefit from affordable and nutritious rice while smallholder farmers are engaged in inclusive business relationships to ensure business growth.
  • Enabling environment: We advocate for policies and regulatory frameworks that provide a solid foundation for scaling up sustainable rice, establishing quality standards, fostering inclusive business relationships and facilitating access to innovative sources of finance.

Photo credits: Isabel Corthier

Our rice programme

Farms as systems within systems

Rikolto views rice farms as more than mere production units. They are dynamic systems embedded in and interacting with other systems, with an impact extending far beyond rice. To reflect this complexity in our work, we adopt a holistic approach that takes into account the multiple complex interactions between labour, capital, soil, climatic conditions, innovation and technological progress, market dynamics, socio-political contexts and many other factors. This comprehensive perspective is what we refer to as the “farming systems approach”.

“No farm is an island”. On the contrary, farms are an integral part of the landscape that they inhabit. A multitude of farms can sometimes form a cultural landscape, for example in Bali, where rice terraces dominate parts of the island. The Balinese “subak”, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a complex, multidimensional socio-agricultural-religious system that encompasses land management techniques, especially water use, allocation of traditional rights and duties and even religious elements.

Landscapes are shaped by human activity and are continuously changing. Rikolto contributes to the development of public-private governance mechanisms and enabling environments to manage human impacts on landscape, in alignment with the WHO’s “One Health Approach”, whose guiding principle is “to avoid harming the health of living beings (humans, animals, plants) and ecosystems wherever possible”, emphasising the interdependence of human, animal and plant health.

Key lines of our interventions

Rather than relying on technocratic approaches, our work is conceptually informed and grounded in holistic and comprehensive strategies. Our initiatives revolve around the following key lines of intervention.

Agro-technical solutions

We bolster the quantity and quality of rice production by promoting sustainable and agro-ecological farming practices, following regenerative agriculture principles. This includes the adoption of good agricultural practices in line with the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) and organic standards and the implementation of innovative techniques such as system of rice intensification, integrated soil fertility management, alternate wetting and drying and the smart-valley approach. We also promote the use of quality seeds and varieties that are adapted to the local condition. These practices boost rice productivity while minimising negative environmental impact.

Socio-economic impact

Our mission is to work towards a decent net income for all stakeholders in the rice value chain and affordable, safe and nutritious food for consumers. To this end, we not only promote increased farm productivity through agro-technical solutions but also enable consumers to access sustainably produced local rice. We do this by supporting quality assurance and marketing directly to consumers and intermediaries such as millers, retailers and institutional buyers. We also advocate for private and public policies that support access to finance, promote the production of environmentally sustainable products and encourage the establishment and adoption of quality assurance schemes.

Together, these two main strands benefit socio-ecological ecosystems, protecting natural and social capital from erosion and contributing to nature-based solutions. In fact, improved quantity and quality of rice and access to better/stable markets have a direct positive impact on farmers’ income. By increasing farm stability and productivity, we are helping to reduce risks for all stakeholders in the value chain, from the farmers to the consumers. Our strategy evolves but our overarching goal remains the same: to increase farmers’ incomes and build resilience in the rice-based agrifood system.

Enhancing value in the rice-based agrifood system

In practice, Rikolto has focused on improving value creation within the rice-based agrifood system. This is a complex task, as value creation in one area can cause benefit or harm in others, creating what economists call positive and negative externalities. For instance, excessive use of chemical inputs to boost yields in the shortest possible time has a negative impact on the environment and soil fertility, while agro-ecological practices help to generate good yields in an environmentally friendly way over many years. We have created value successfully, managing trade-offs and avoiding negative externalities through quality improvement initiatives.

These include the production and marketing of certified organic rice by our partners in Indonesia and the quality label for local rice sold to urban consumers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These efforts have translated into tangible benefits for farmers. In Indonesia, farmers benefit from prices that are 10–20% higher when they sell certified organic rice through the partner cooperative.

Photo credits: Chris Claes

In DRC, farmer members of the cooperatives also receive several benefits: a 30% reduction in milling costs, a 2–5% higher selling price for their paddy and dividend from the additional cooperative profits. In fact, when the cooperative sells quality Nyange Nyange labelled rice, the profits they receive are 135% higher than if they sold to the conventional market. Simultaneously, consumers benefit from accessible, high-quality and safe rice products.

We explore a farm-system focused approach by looking beyond rice for value creation. In fact, diversification through crop rotation/intercropping with other high-value crops along with integrated farming offers both economic and environmental benefits. Crop diversification involves growing rice alternately to, or alongside, other crops such as legumes and vegetables. Intercrops are often grown along the soil bund, in gunny bags or side by side with paddy, especially in drylands. Rice production can also be integrated with non-vegetable crops such as cattle, fish, shrimp and ducks, depending on climatic conditions and soil types. These approaches optimise land use, provide natural crop protection by controlling pests and improve soil health and biodiversity. Importantly, they create business opportunities for youth and women, generating new income streams for the community.

This approach has already proven successful in:

  • Indonesia: Members of the farmer organisation APPOLI paddy in connection with mung beans, which are particularly suitable for the rainfed area where they grow rice (Boyolali district, Central Java). This diversifies APPOLI’s collective marketing business beyond rice, constituting 15% share of their annual revenue
  • Vietnam: We have piloted rice-fish farming with the Tan Loi farmer group in Tri Ton District (An Giang Province) in collaboration with Kien Giang University. This delivered key results, from providing income diversification, improving resilience during flood-prone period and increasing soil health to providing safe and healthy food for the consumers.

Numerous intercropping and integrated farming projects are on the horizon, exploring rice combinations with black soya beans, maize and vegetables (Indonesia), sorghum, millet and maize (Senegal), pulses (Tanzania) and shrimps and ducks (Vietnam)

Rice-related income sources

Sustainable income can also be generated by developing rice products that add value to rice and rice waste and by engaging in other rice-related business activities. These include processing rice and/or broken rice into other nutritious foods like parboiled rice, crackers, biscuits, healthy drinks, snacks and yellow rice, promoting circularity by growing mushrooms using rice straw, producing biochar from rice husks and organic fertiliser from rice waste and producing inputs for rice cultivation by linking rice production to tourism. These additional/alternative income-generating activities are well suited to attracting and involving women and youth where land is too scarce for them to join mainstream rice production.

We have already had positive experience with this approach in:

  • Burkina Faso, adding nutritional value to rice and generating income for women through the parboiling process. Under the parboiling franchising business model promoted by Rikolto and UNERIZ, women parboilers have increased from 40 during the pilot phase to 400 in 2023. They earn additional income through a 400% average increase in their parboiled rice production capacity and a 22% increase in price over a period of five years. Consumers benefit from better quality local parboiled rice (100% long grain, natural aroma, low impurities) that is not only of superior quality but also more affordable compared with imported options. This model is currently being replicated in Benin, Mali and Senegal.

  • Senegal, developing a new urea granular production business unit to respond to existing demand for accessible and quality input. The unit is managed by youth who are members of the FEBROBA farmer organisation. Since its launch in early 2022, it has been enabled farmers to save €46 per hectare per season by using urea fertiliser more efficiently and effectively.
  • Indonesia, transforming broken rice into healthy rice crackers to generate additional income for women. Several female farmers organised as the Female Farmer Group and members of the APOB Cooperative started this activity in March 2023. They source the main ingredient from APOB milling unit, utilising rice that does not meet the required size to be sold as quality rice. These rice crackers are marketed as a healthy option, because they use broken rice produced in line with the organic/SRP standard and using non-chemical ingredients. APOB helps them to sell the crackers to a retailer in Semarang and to consumers in the neighbourhoods but they plan to promote it as a ready-to-eat product and expand the market through additional market channels.
Photo credits: Chris Claes
  • DR Congo, using the innovative Nyange Nyange model to add value to local rice to make it attractive to urban consumers. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a non-profit organisation called “Nyange Nyange” has been set up to certify rice quality and create a label to promote local rice and make it attractive, recognisable and accessible to urban consumers. The initiative goes beyond sustainable rice production and aims to reduce dependence on imported rice by promoting local rice and increasing its availability by creating new business opportunities for farmers. In addition, a group of young people have been working with a local university to transform broken rice into value-added products such as baby food, flour and cakes.

In the near future, we’re exploring initiatives in Vietnam, focusing on mushroom production from rice straw and beekeeping for rice farmers, while in Uganda we plan to integrate rice production with tourism to offer new and dynamic income opportunities.

In conclusion, our journey from “rice to rice+” represents a decisive step forward, driven by our experience and our understanding of the complexities within the rice-based agrifood system. We recognise that meaningful change requires a holistic perspective and going beyond rice. We aim to elevate farm stability, enhance productivity and boost income of rice farmers in order to fortify the environment and the resilience of their communities. In doing so, we aspire to lay the foundation for a more sustainable and secure food future that benefits all.

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