Helped by the people of Scotland, ethical rice ‘is our rescuer, our hope, our wealth’ – Mary Popple

A woman rice farmer in North Malawi
A woman rice farmer in North Malawi
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Mary Popple on how a market has been created for a Malawi-grown grain

Working under the hot Malawian sun, small-holder farmers in the north of Malawi grow the delicious Kilombero rice in tiny plots. This vital lifeline is then imported by our Paisley-based not-for-profit organisation Just Trading Scotland (JTS) where we help set a fair price for this quality product.

Just Trading Scotland's new Chair Mary Popple

Just Trading Scotland's new Chair Mary Popple

It is one partnership in a long line of strong friendships our two countries have forged over the past 160 years.

“It is our cash crop, our rescuer, our hope, our wealth,” said Howard Msukwa, chair of the Farmers’ Association in Karonga (KASFA).

Like many others involved in this particular Scotland-Malawi partnership, Howard has cause for celebration as JTS has just received a very special tenth birthday present. We have been given the prestigious accolade of the “most ethical rice you can buy” following an extensive investigation by Ethical Consumer, an announcement met with jubilation by Scots and Malawians alike.

So, how did all of this come about? JTS started life in 2009 with a first delivery of rice from KASFA. Our task was to create a market for a product no one had heard of in a marketplace crowded with big corporations who were keen to keep the small players out. Today we import 50 tonnes of ethical rice per year and sell it right across the UK.

It has not been easy but there have certainly been key high points along the way, one of the most notable being the idea to establish the “90kg Rice Challenge”.

This is the amount a farmer must sell in order to pay for secondary schooling for one child for a year, a tangible concept which many Scottish communities have taken to their hearts. Quite simply, it involves a group buying 90kg of rice (in 1kg bags) from JTS and selling it to family, friends, colleagues, school groups, and so on. Since starting the challenge, 900 supporter groups have taken 1,600 challenges, buying 144 tonnes of rice.

For teachers like Fraser Boyd at Robert Douglas Memorial School in Scone, the Rice Challenge is a great way for pupils to forge their own roles as global citizens in helping to enact change. For several years, pupils have sold Kilombero rice during the school’s parents’ evenings.

Another key moment in the strengthening of this partnership occurred a few years into our relationship with the farmers when, in 2013, the Scottish Government through its Malawi Development Programme gave invaluable assistance by funding a project to improve seed quality and farming efficiency to increase yields.

Low-tech interventions such as the purchase of tarpaulins for winnowing and ox-carts to transport the rice from the fields have made a sustainable difference. Interventions which Howard says have helped the farmers to raise yields by 20 to 30 per cent.

I went to Northern Malawi to talk with women rice farmers and to see first-hand the hardships they face. They were so proud to learn that their rice is enjoyed by people in Scotland – it brings smiles to their faces.

They talked of the long hours in the fields, the heat and the back-breaking work and how the rains on which they depend have become unpredictable. Without bullock-drawn ploughs they may not get their land tilled and the seed sown. We started a plough fund and now many women own ploughs and can till their land. It is a small change which is making a real difference to women farmers and their families, and all because of a simple initiative embraced by many Scots.

Reflecting on our tenth anniversary, Tracy Mitchell, business manager at JTS who has worked with the enterprise since its inception summed up the partnership with the rice farmers well by saying that it is “dignity through trade.”

For any organisation, reaching a key milestone is both cause for celebration and a chance to look ahead to future plans and keeping vital partnerships sustained. It is with this focus in mind that JTS has launched its “Join us for the Journey” appeal to raise more working capital and help the enterprise survive and thrive.

John Riches, the inspirational founder of JTS, said: “Life is hard for social enterprises like ours that want to pay farmers a fair price upfront. Please help us by buying rice and with our Join us for the Journey appeal for working capital to help our business survive for another ten years.

“The relationship built up between the farmers in Malawi, JTS and the people of Scotland is an amazing story of hard work, determination and commitment. This is the partnership between Scotland and Malawi working at its best.”

Kilombero rice and other ethically sourced products are available from fair trade shops throughout Scotland and online at www.jts.co.uk/shop/

Mary Popple is Just Trading Scotland’s new chair