Written by Adedoyin Ajayi
Rice is a staple crop in Africa, consumed heavily as part of the daily diet across the continent. While not as economically viable as cocoa, sesame seed, groundnuts and coffee, it constitutes a significant portion of the diet of many African households. The level of rice consumption is highest in the furthest part of West Africa, with the likes of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea averaging over 60 kg per person yearly. Conversely, these countries are not prominent for being rice producers in commercial quantities, as rice production is often left to small scale farmers. Though large scale rice farmers exist, the output levels in these countries are often insufficient to cater for the needs of these nations. Sierra Leone in particular, is a major importer of rice, with rice importation alone adding up to 15% of total food imports in 2017, which correlates to a massive $190 million. Therefore, commercializing the rice industry in the country is a major task.
The West African Rice Company (WARC) is based in Freetown and aims to reduce poverty in Sierra Leone by building up the country’s rice industry.
Created by 2 Argentines, Emiliano Mroue and Patricio Imerito in 2011, WARC is devoted to production and raising the amount of high quality rice in Sierra Leone. This privately-owned agri-business not only produces rice, but also maize, soy and sorghum. WARC also provides small and large scale farmers in addition to farmer cooperative societies with technical and financial assistance as well as training to strengthen the value chain of production and supply of rice. Keeping in line with environmental and sustainability measures, the company also aims to use natural resources at an optimal level, in order to give maximum support to shareholders and communities.
Partnership with small holder farmers to boost production
The company owns a thousand hectares of land in Tormabum, Bonthe District in the southern province of the country for rice farming. Outgrowers (smallholder farmers) are also hired by WARC for the purpose of raising their production base and capacity to supply rice for sale. The relationship with outgrowers is 2-dimensional in nature; with the company providing seeds, monitoring production and harvesting as well as drying. In return, WARC receives a portion of the produce at a cost, with the farmer free to consume or sell the remainder. However, the company requires the procured rice to be free of impurities, have a low level of humidity and be of only one variety.
Identification of market targets is vital to any successful business, and WARC majorly aims at producing rice for those in the middle and high income bracket in order to reduce their craving for imported rice which is of superior quality. However, there have been challenges. High demand for imported rice is a huge challenge for WARC. The total cost of processing a bushel of husk rice into milled rice costs US$ 680, while importing rice into the country comes duty-free and is bought for US$ 400. Not only is imported rice cheaper, it is of higher quality and more widely available in the country due to low productivity in the rice industry.
In 2016, Cordaid Investments invested in WARC to support expansion and reduce the effect of the Ebola outbreak which had slowed down operations. The investments were for infrastructural development (purchasing new equipment), to improve the quality of its rice and reduce the country’s demands for foreign rice.
Environmental and smart practices
WARC adopts environmental-friendly measures in farming, keeping in line with the sustainability and optimal usage of natural resources. In addition, value creation constitutes a major portion of their activities, by equipping outgrowers, creation of local markets for products and partnering with similar organizations and farmer societies to carry out research for farmers. By using regenerative agricultural practices and no-till technology to raise productivity of smallholder farmers, they aim to reduce the quantity of fertilizer and agro-chemical usage, reinforcing the company’s stand on environmental sustainability.
WARC has a permanent staff strength of 120 workers and temporary workers, which can be as many as 150 during peak periods of production. Interestingly, 45% of WARC’s employees are women. This fact is noteworthy, seeing as African agriculture is marked by a lower level of female participation. Moreover, the company reserves some positions exclusively for women, such as the harvester operator roles.
Some of their success includes transitioning over 1,000 farmers from subsistence farming into large-scale farming, 400 women empowered, creating about 300 jobs in rural communities and approximately 5,000 acres currently undergoing regenerative agriculture.