Congolese rice farmers conquer the local market

Congolese rice farmers conquer the local market

Eight rice cooperatives in the Ruzizi valley join forces and win the hearts of beer and rice fans.

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.

(pictures: Isabel Corthier)

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.


  • The managing boards of the cooperatives are used to implementing projects that are funded with foreign aid. However, the purpose of a cooperative is to generate profit for its members. Despite this fact, board members rarely think in terms of profitability of their cooperative’s activities and have insufficient knowledge of how the rice market works, who the key players are and how prices are set. Turning the farmers’ organisations into commercial cooperatives is the biggest challenge and a prerequisite for guaranteeing sustainability.
  • Many cooperative members, especially woman, have never been to school and are therefore illiterate. Often they do not understand the subtleties of how a cooperative operates. What is the role of the managing board? What is important in business negotiations? What is the difference between members’ contributions and profit? And so on.
  • The yield per hectare is low, but better rice varieties, proper soil fertilisation and the right production techniques could lead to improvements in productivity. There is a lack of knowledge about new techniques like integrated soil fertility management and system of rice intensification. Some areas are too dry, others too wet: the irrigation channels are old and not rehabilitated. At the border with Burundi, the COOPAMAK cooperative has problems with hippos destroying their members’ fields.
  • At the start of the growing season, everything needs to be carefully planned: are there customers who want to buy a specific quantity of rice of a particular variety? Is there sufficient sowing seed of that variety available? Where can we purchase this together? How many hectares will each farmer sow and what is his/her expected yield? Where can we get a loan to purchase the entire harvest? And so on. The cooperatives have no clear idea of the expected yield at the end of the season and do not draw up a production schedule.
  • There are very few storage facilities where the rice can be safely kept.

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

Bea rice farmer
  • There are hardly any places where the rice can be dried under hygienic conditions: usually this is done at home, on old plastic sheets.
  • Some of the fields of the ADPA cooperative lie on the opposite bank of the river. The sacks of rice have to be transported over the river on foot or by bike; wet rice goes mouldy very quickly, of course.
  • Small rice hullers can never produce premium-grade rice: the rice grains break easily during the hulling process. The result is broken rice, which is bought exclusively by people who cannot afford quality rice – and by the Bralima brewery. But even Bralima only buys rice containing 30% or less broken grains.
  • Only one cooperative (ADPA) regularly signs contracts for the delivery of large quantities of rice. The other seven cooperatives have no experience in the collective sale of their members’ rice.
  • A cooperative needs capital to purchase their members’ rice and transport it to a store for subsequent processing (mechanical hulling) and packaging. Credit providers are not easy to find and want security to cover the loan amount. Cooperatives that do not own their own land or warehouse find it particularly difficult to be considered for a loan.
  • It is mainly the women who work in the fields, planting out rice seedlings, weeding, harvesting, removing the rice grains from the spikes and transporting the rice to a warehouse or to the market. Women are less involved in actual selling, however.


  • Giving management support the cooperatives so that the members have a better understanding of the role of each management body, what transparent bookkeeping looks like and what democratic, transparent management is. Advise on the statutory documents that all cooperatives must have to be able to operate legally. Explain to the members how decisions are reached, what they can expect from the management and what their own role is. Ultimately, the cooperatives have to run independently according to a business plan.
  • Instead of equipping each cooperative with a small processing machine to hull the rice, we will opt to set up two larger processing facilities (Entreprises de Transformation et de Commercialisation – processing and marketing companies). They can process all the rice in the area and will be equipped with highly efficient machines for hulling the rice without breaking the grains (percentage broken grains less than 10%). Packaging will also be done there. The cooperatives supported by Rikolto – and other cooperatives too – will supply these processing facilities.
  • Develop new structures: set up, firstly, a Union of Rice Cooperatives (Union des Cooperatives Productrices du riz) and, secondly, a sales platform, linked to the two processing companies.

United we stand – that’s our motto to conquer the rice market

Etienne Mayenga Mvula manager COOPABA
  • Co-fund a number of investments, such as building warehouses and concrete slabs for drying the rice and installing two efficient machines to hull and sort the rice. The cooperatives will bear half the costs of each project so that they regard themselves as joint owner.
  • Consumers prefer fragrant rice, but it is more difficult to grow because it is more susceptible to disease – plus rats also love the aromatic grains. Production costs are therefore higher, which in turn bumps up the market price. Since the average family in East Congo cannot afford to buy expensive rice, we will initially focus on high-quality non-fragrant rice. At a later stage we will do trials with fragrant rice, working with research institutes such as the Service Nationale de Semences (national seed service).
  • Help find working capital for the eight cooperatives and the two processing companies so that the rice can be purchased from the producers.
  • Help to ensure that women have decision-making powers in the cooperatives and that the tasks and earnings are shared more fairly.

Rikolto supports eight rice cooperatives.

  • ADPA: Acteurs de developpement des paysans Agriculteurs
  • COOPABA: Coopérative agricole pour la commercialisation performante des aliments de base
  • COOPATU: Coopérative agricole Tuungane
  • COOPAMAK: Coopérative agricole Mashaka de Kilomoni
  • COOPRAD: Coopérative agricole pour la promotion de l'agriculture et le développement.
  • COOSOPRODA: Coopérative agricole de solidarité pour la production des denrés alimentaires
  • COOPASA: Coopérative agricole de Sange

In total, they have 639 members (398 men and 241 women).

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.

  • Thanks to training, the average yield on a large proportion of the rice fields has increased from 1.5 tonnes per hectares to an average of 4-6 tonnes, depending on where the fields are located.

  • In most of the cooperatives, fertiliser and seed are purchased collectively. Group purchasing reduces the cost for the farmers at the start of the growing season.

  • COOSOPRODA basin dredged, which meant that 100 ha of new rice fields could be created.

  • Five warehouses have been built to store rice; one is still under construction. The cooperatives are bearing half the cost, with Rikolto (VECO) paying the other 50%. At the warehouses, a concrete floor has also been laid (see group photo below), on which the rice can be dried.

  • In the past three years ADPA has supplied 400, 650 and 700 tonnes of rice, respectively, to Bralima. This amounts to 32.5% of the total quantity purchased by the brewery. ADPA persuaded a lender to provide it with money to buy and collect its members' rice, and also gained experience in negotiating prices, concluding contracts, etc.

  • At COOPABA and ADPA, efficient machines were installed in a new warehouse. Both organisations contributed 50% of the cost price. For the moment the machines are still being managed by the cooperatives, but the idea is to privatise the processing plants at some point in the future.

  • The Union of Rice Cooperatives was created in 2015. There, the total supply of rice expected from the next harvest is calculated, i.e. how many tonnes of which variety can be placed on the market by when. A sales committee was set up in late 2016 and will be tasked with seeking markets and negotiating on prices.

  • Women make up 40% of the membership of rice cooperatives, but are still under-represented in management bodies.

  • Training of all kinds has been provided to help the cooperatives operate as robust businesses. Some organisations have made huge progress, while for others there is still a long way to go to change their mentality.

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.

Elise Nyandinda former provincial minister, now rice farmer once again

What do we expect in the long term?

Ruzizi rice will be able to compete with imported rice and conquer the urban markets in South Kivu

Louis Tchuma
Rice and Coffee coordinator South Kivu