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On the saddle: The aroma and pricing of Malawi’s kilombero

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Malawi’s rice, particularly kilombero, is acclaimed for its unique aroma and flavour and is said to be a favourite for many people within and outside the country.

Indeed for Malawians visiting foreign countries, it is not uncommon to be asked for Malawi rice and many often carry packs to give as gifts to relatives, friends and business associates abroad.

During a Rice Marketing Conference hosted by the African Institute of Corporate Citizens (AICC) in Lilongwe last Thursday, it was indeed learned that there was demand for Malawi rice in various countries in the region, although it was hardly available there.

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A small amount of Malawi rice is found in shops and local markets in Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe where it is exported informally by Malawian and foreign traders.

A market research conducted by the British-government funded Business Innovation Facility, as reported at the conference, established that consumers in neighbouring countries crave Malawi rice and would love to have it consistently supplied in their shops in sufficient quantities.

However, what the researcher established is that Malawi’s rice is finding it difficult to penetrate these potential markets because of its higher price compared to other brands available in those markets.

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The packaging and branding of Malawi’s rice was also found wanting and unattractive to consumers.

The researcher reported that rice brands from China, Thailand, Pakistan and South Africa were widely available and selling fast in shops and supermarkets in Zimbabwe, Zambia and other countries in the region because of their better prices, which were way lower than that of rice from Malawi.

This was surprising to many participants at the conference considering the distance between those countries and Malawi compared to that to the Asian countries.

On the informal market in Harare for example, loose rice – not packed and sold from open sacks, from Malawi was reported to be selling at about $2 or about K1, 400 per kilogramme while similar rice from Asia was priced at $1 or about K700 per kilogramme.

Queried on this, rice production experts present at the conference explained that Malawi’s rice is indeed expensive compared to that from other countries because of significantly low yields per hectare realised by rice farmers in the country.

This, it was learned, was a result of poor and archaic production methods used by farmers in Malawi.

While farmers in China, Thailand and Pakistan use certified seed, till their lands with machines and follow modern farming methods by – among other things, planting one seedling per station, rice farmers in Malawi mostly use recycled seed, till land using hoes and plant several sprouts per station.

As a result, yields of rice per hectare in Malawi are much lower compared to those in Asia and other rice growing countries.

Supporting our farmers to start following modern methods of agriculture is therefore important in country’s efforts to improve the production and export of rice and other crops other than tobacco. Successful export of commodities requires more than just quality and volumes but also efficient production to make sure that they are competitively priced on the international market.

It is therefore pleasing to hear that AICC is already working with rice farmers in various parts of the country to help them improve rice yields by, among other things, adopting modern methods of farming like those used in Asia and other rice growing countries around the world.

After maize, rice is one of the most important food crops than can contribute to diversification of Malawi’s export base and food security.

Rice is a crop that is widely grown in many areas of the country, which means many local farmers already have the experience, knowledge and skill of growing the crop.

Supporting the farmers to improve productivity and yields of the crop therefore has the potential to improve the production and export of the crop in support of efforts to increase alternatives to tobacco as the country’s foreign exchange earner.

Malawi needs to leverage on the existing preference for its kilombero and other rice varieties in the region and beyond by increasing exports through low cost production that can make it possible for the crop to be marketed at highly competitive prices on the international market.

It is the competitive pricing of rice by farmers than can also attract serious companies to invest in processing, packaging and branding so that when the product gets on the shelves of the supermarkets in Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana and others, it is also attractive enough to win the attention of consumers.

Its high time Malawi started benefiting from the unique aroma of its kilombero rice through meaningful exports.

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