Rice farmers in West Africa are using a decision-making mobile app and mechanised service centres to improve their yields and incomes. The sector is also leading the way in tackling the scourge of rural youth unemployment.
Two pilot projects are aiming to bring better advice to West African farmers ahead of the crop season and give them access to all-important soil preparation, harvesting and storage machinery. AfricaRice and the Syngenta Foundation trialled the RiceAdvice app and the Farmers’ Equipment Service Centres (CEMA) project across several West African countries between 2015 and 2017, in an effort to improve local rice yields, make the crop more competitive and boost farmers’ incomes.
Initial studies have shown that fertiliser, soil preparation and harvesting machinery are where production costs are steepest. Poor yields and meagre profit margins also mean that farmers find it hard to secure bank loans.
But rice is something of a paradox in Africa. Population growth, urbanisation and new food habits are pushing up consumption across the continent, yet in 2016, imports still accounted for between 10% and 90% of domestic consumption in 22 of Africa’s 43 countries, at an estimated total cost of €4.46 billion. That said, there is still huge potential for job creation in the rice value chain. However, a lack of education, support and prospects means that young people struggle to seize these opportunities. Meanwhile, active rice farmers have limited access to improved seeds, markets, new technologies and funding.
“Youth employment is one of the key challenges facing the sub-region,” says Vincent Fautrel, Senior Programme Coordinator on Agricultural Value Chain Development at CTA. “As urban demand for food products keeps growing, there are huge job opportunities for young people in the agribusiness sector across West Africa.”
A decision support tool
RiceAdvice, a mobile app developed by AfricaRice and Co-Capacity, targets one end of the value chain. The app is designed to help farmers make informed decisions as they prepare for the season ahead, covering issues such as target yields, plant nutrition, crop calendars and good agricultural practices. Between 2015 and 2017, AfricaRice and the Syngenta Foundation tested the app in Mali, Nigeria and Senegal. Field visits revealed how, in many cases, poor fertiliser practices were producing low yields, polluting the environment and degrading the soil. A team of 238 specialists was deployed, training 19,000 farmers to use the app. “Tests have consistently shown that farmers can achieve significantly higher yields when they follow the advice delivered through the RiceAdvice app,” says Youssou Diagne, regional coordinator at the Syngenta Foundation, which ran the trial in conjunction with AfricaRice. During the trial, farmers using the app reported average yield gains of between 0.6 and 1.8 t/ha, while their average income increased by between US$100 and US$200/ha (€81 to €162). Estimates suggest that, between 2015 and 2017, farmers across the three countries produced an additional 9,323 t of rice to normal production, worth €3.15 million. By the end of the trial, 95% of the farmers said they wanted to carry on using the app.
Partners behind the project believe that the app could even spark the emergence of a new rice farming consulting industry and, in doing so, help tackle the scourge of rural youth unemployment. Most rice farmers are illiterate and do not own a smartphone, leaving a gap in the market for young people living in rural areas. With the right training and equipment, they could start marketing consulting services to both farmers and cooperatives.
The brand-new CEMA model
The CEMA project, trialled in 2015 in Mali and Senegal, is an altogether different proposition. Under this model, farmers club together to form their own businesses and procure soil preparation, harvesting, processing and storage machinery (such as tractors and combine harvesters) from the centres – an investment they would be unable to fund on their own. “What makes the CEMA model different is the way the centres are managed,” explains Youssou Diagne. “Each centre is run privately, or at the very least independently.” The machinery is owned by a farmers’ organisation, but managed by a separate, internal, private entity, which is tasked with running the centre, maintaining the equipment and managing its finances in line with the agreed terms and conditions. During the trial, the Syngenta Foundation set up a guarantee fund and helped farmers write business plans so they could secure bank loans. It also trained them in how to use, maintain and manage the machines.
In Senegal, the early trials pushed up the percentage of farmers growing two crops per year from 40% to 88%, because the new machinery meant they could harvest their crops faster and get straight on with preparing the ground for replanting (either rice or market gardening crops). On a similar note, harvest costs were down by between 12% and 16% across different seasons when compared with manual harvesting. “One of the main benefits of the CEMA model is that it builds trust between farmers and banks,” adds Diagne. “Because repayments are made in arrears, service providers are better able to prioritise how they allocate their income.”
Fostering youth entrepreneurship
“The advent of ICTs and machinery has paved the way for innovative young entrepreneurs to move into rice farming, processing, marketing and other activities,” says Mandiaye Diagne, value chain specialist at AfricaRice. “Now we have to make sure that young agripreneurs and rural young people in general get the right education, training, skills and support.”
CTA, AfricaRice and the Syngenta Foundation have teamed up to launch a new project entitled PEJERIZ (Promoting youth entrepreneurship and job creation in the West African rice value chain), with this very aim in mind – building youth entrepreneurship capacities, forging closer market ties, and promoting wealth-creating activities in the rice sectors of Mali and Senegal. The first phase of the project, which is due to run for 2 years, should begin in March 2018.