By Samantha Lees
Anyone who’s grown up in a Chinese family would probably have heard of the saying “粒粒皆辛苦”, a saying that teaches children that every grain of rice comes with hard work, and hence should never be wasted. Yet before the rice even gets to the market, almost a third of it is already wasted. We spoke to Kisum Chan, co-founder of Rice Inc, about sourcing delicious grains that help fight poverty and food waste in the rice industry.
30% of rice grown is wasted even before it hits the market
Where does this wastage come from? It is a problem intrinsically linked with the poverty of rice farmers. “Right now 79% of all rice farmers in the world are earning below their national minimum wage. It causes 30% of rice grown to be wasted even before it hits the market. Farmers who are stuck in the cycle of poverty can’t afford modern farming equipment that larger farms use. They still use traditional farming techniques, and this causes the 30% waste of rice,” says Kisum. For a grain that is eaten by half of the world’s population every day, that amounts to a staggering 150 million tonnes of wasted rice every year – enough to end world hunger almost twice over if it were to be saved.
Photo: Rice Inc
This is due to poor engineering and agricultural practices, and inadequate infrastructure as a result of poor farmers lacking resources.
The majority of rice farmers still rely on low-tech ways of farming. Around 70% of all rice is produced by smallholder farmers, most of whom do not have access to rice-drying machines and storage facilities that could drastically reduce losses and store it for selling in the off-season.
“Our mission at Rice Inc. is to end the cycle of poverty and the cycle of waste”
Kisum and his co-founder Lincoln Lee established the social enterprise initially for pitching competitions including the Hult Prize challenge, the most prestigious startup prize in the world that crowdsources ideas from university-level students to solve a pressing social issue. After winning the US$1 million seed capital grant, they went full steam ahead to build the world’s first socially responsible rice brand.
Rice Inc. is tackling both the social and environmental issues in the rice industry by selling rice with its own brand Paddi. “Our vision for 2025 is to impact over 10 million lives, that includes farmers, their families and communities”.
Photo: Rice Inc
They are doing so on three fronts:
Firstly, they reinvest 20% of all their profits towards funding the installation of rice-drying machines that serve smallholder farmers in Southeast Asia to eliminate wasted grains. Farmers get a better income from less rice lost as well as having higher quality grains.
Secondly, by working towards building direct trade relationships with farmers, they can ensure a fair price for farmers instead of allowing middlemen to suppress farm gate prices and decrease transparency in the supply chain.
Finally, they give their farmers a premium over the current market price, because market prices are generated by large companies that are artificially suppressing the price of rice everywhere. By getting their farmers a better price, like fairtrade cocoa, can incentivise them to farm more productively, but also produce better quality rice that will benefit consumers.
“To date, we have saved close to 2 million meals of rice that would have otherwise been wasted, and have impacted over 200 farmers and their communities.”
Carbon Neutral Grains
Rice is one of the most carbon-intensive carbohydrates for direct human consumption. Flooding rice paddies, a traditional way of rice farming, emit significant amounts of methane, which is a greenhouse gas that traps 25 times more heat than CO2. Methane is also released when rice is left out to rot on the field or burnt improperly. Every bag of Paddi rice funds better farming technology and techniques for farmers, thus reducing waste and emissions during production.
“A lot of impact with not necessarily a large amount of money”
Rice Inc’s Paddi rice is a great product for foodservice providers that are looking to fulfil their sustainable and ethical sourcing criteria at a lower cost base.
“Paddi’s value proposition is our impact model that we’ve designed and created, which is proprietary.” Sourcing Paddi directly helps farmers invest in key technologies that provide long-term value, similar to solar panels. Depending on the type of rice, the price premium ranges between 20 to 50%, but from a low-cost base. “What our foodservice partners like about our rice brand compared to other products that have a (social and environmental) sustainable mission is that the cost base for rice is relatively low, and we only source the best quality rice with our direct trade rice brand.” In addition to being an easy way for foodservice outlets to reduce their carbon footprint, the story behind Paddi is a meaningful and powerful one to tell customers.
As Rice Inc continues to build up its capacity in the UK and recover from the Covid-19 pandemic with their restaurant partners, they are looking at expanding to Hong Kong, and are eager to speak to potential foodservice partners who are looking for a cost-effective yet delicious impact product.