Social business: Ugandan women escape poverty through rice production

Agnes Atim Apea’s social enterprise, the Hope Development Initiative, is helping poor smallholder women farmers achieve financial independence by providing inputs, technical farming services and a guaranteed market for rice.

In northern Uganda, a social enterprise has trained over 11,000 poor rural women in rice production to help them earn a living © Victor Samuel Huckabee

In 2012, Agnes ‘Mama Rice’ Apea took a trip home to her district of Amolatar in northern Uganda and was struck by the deep poverty among local women in the region. Many had experienced conflict and displacement and seemed powerless to improve their livelihoods. To help these women earn an income, Apea made the innovative move to introduce rice growing in the district.

At first, 20 women were organised to grow upland rice and, as a result, Apea’s social enterprise Hope Development Initiative (HDI) was born in 2012. Since then, more than 11,000 farmers across five districts in northern Uganda have been supported to grow, process and sell rice under the ‘Mama Rice’ brand. “Rice has a market and is nutritious and easy to prepare, making it an ideal crop for women,” says Apea.

Through its cooperative model, HDI provides inputs, credit facilities and mechanisation services to the women, and trains them in how to grow rice using best agronomic practices. Members pay an annual subscription fee of €1.11 and can purchase shares in HDI for €2.23. At the end of the season, HDI buys the rice from farmers at market price. The women farmers produce up to 1,000 kg of rice per season and earn €0.79/kg. The rice is then milled, packaged and sold to wholesalers in Uganda – or exported to Kenya and South Sudan – at €0.89/kg.

“I became Mama Rice because rice was not grown here. It was eaten only on special occasions but now that has changed,” says Apea. “In the last 6 months, we’ve given out 500 t of seeds on credit and we’ve opened over 2,000 ha of land for rice cultivation.” She explains that farmers are also producing their own rice seed in HDI’s 100 ha farm instead of relying on seed purchased from elsewhere. As a result, the farmers are expecting to grow 2,000 t of rice in 2018, up from 1,500 t in 2017.

After the women began producing rice in 2013, HDI established a milling factory in Amolatar, which has the capacity to mill 3 t of rice per day. The mill has helped to bring development to the area, with electricity and transport services being provided by the government in 2014 and 2015. Due to local women now earning a steady and guaranteed income, the POST Bank also opened its first branch in the district in 2015.

Agnes Adio, 32, says that being a member of HDI has helped her financially. From her 1.2 ha piece of land in Amolatar, she grows 4,500 kg of paddy rice. She sold her milled rice in June 2018 for €1,141 and has used these earnings to build a new brick house and to pay for her children’s school fees. “I am excited about moving from a grass thatched house to my new permanent house,” she says. “Rice farming is profitable and has helped me look after my family.”

Apea has been recognised by the Government of Uganda, the business community and Rotary International for championing social justice and equity for women, and was named one of the 100 most influential and innovative women in the world by the BBC in 2017. “The biggest impact of our initiative is the empowerment of women,” emphasises Apea. “From earning nothing to earning an average of €851 per season is life changing. To me, that is empowerment, and it is thanks to the rice enterprise.”

In addition to offering a source of income, and as a means of enabling beneficiaries to purchase land and set up their own agribusinesses, HDI has set up a €340,000 loan scheme for women who struggle to obtain credit due to lack of collateral. Women have accessed average loans of €225, payable over a year. “[Through the loan] many women have bought farming equipment, houses, land and have put their children through school and university. They are working for a food- and financially-secure future,” says Apea.

In January 2019, HDI plans to improve links with suppliers and traders by recruiting another 100 women to set up their own shops across Uganda and become direct distributors of Mama Rice. This will help to cut out the middlemen who transport rice to buyers, and thus increase the margins for women vendors.

Busani Bafana

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.