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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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)
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:
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.