Rice Revolution Targets Growing Global Food Shortage
Got rice? It means everything to many farmers and consumers.
CREDIT: FAO/Walter Astrada
Thomas Jefferson once wrote to George Washington: "Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness." In that spirit, two U.S. student entrepreneurs hope to revolutionize the economics of rice farming in Africa as a way of tackling malnutrition and lifting farmers out of poverty.
A "sell it or smell it" dilemma arises in Mali a country twice the size of Texas because many farmers don't have the equipment to store their rice. Some accept hard bargains driven by merchants and sell at a financial loss, but rice that could feed at least 580,000 people each year still ends up wasted. That's an added dose of tragedy in a country where almost 40 percent of the people suffer enough malnutrition to stunt their height.
Enter Mohamed Ali Niang and Salif Niang. The two brothers are studying in the U.S. and have traveled all over the world with parents who work for the United Nations. Yet they became riveted by the agricultural drama playing out in their home country of Mali, as well as the constant news of food riots racking countries around the world.
"Mali should be a rice-exporting country that feeds all of West Africa," Salif Niang said. "It's a golden opportunity, a green opportunity. It's huge."
The brothers have hunted down technologies that can store and enrich rice to transform the staple crop into a profitable, micronutrient-packed winner for both farmers and hungry consumers.
From tech to innovation
Once set up, the business named Malo Traders would take the rice off the hands of farmers, process it, and sell it on the national and international markets.
"We want to establish the first brand of fortified rice in Mali, the strongest brand in West Africa," Mohamed Ali Niang said. "These farmers will earn more money while at the same time boosting the productivity and health of themselves and their children."
Mali currently grows crops on barely 20 percent of the land suitable for irrigation. The brothers hope to change that as well by motivating farmers to grow greater quantities of higher-quality rice. To do that, they would offer extra money to farmers for supplying the best-quality crops.
Malo Traders would use airtight, climate-controlled "MegaCocoon" covers developed by the company GrainPro to protect the rice harvest from both moisture and insects. It would also fortify the rice with iron and other micronutrients by using Ultra Rice technology developed by PATH.
Such rice enrichment could make a huge impact in a country where 81 percent of children under the age of 5 and 67 percent of women suffer from the iron-deficiency condition known as anemia.
Business of food
The brothers considered developing their own technologies, but eventually decided that such solutions already existed. They wanted to focus on the business plan that would make such inventions into true innovations capable of transforming the rice markets. If the venture takes off in Mali, other African countries could be next.
"It's a business venture," Mohamed Ali Niang said. "We don't need a single cent in subsidies, and we don't need a break. We're providing a social product in a free-market economy."
Raising the estimated $2.5 million for setting up shop remains perhaps the biggest challenge. As a backup, the brothers have prepared to make do with a smaller proof-of-concept operation before scaling up. They hope to be ready to tackle some of the fall harvest in Mali by 2012.
The duo also remains "thousands of miles away" from where they want to set up shop, but expect that problem to be resolved soon. Salif Niang is finishing up a Ph.D. in international politics at Purdue University in West Lafayette, and Mohamed Ali Niang is completing his undergraduate education in international business/entrepreneurship and corporate sustainability and economics at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Malo Traders represents one of 15 student teams or startups showcased in the Open Minds competition hosted by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance in partnership with the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The public event took place at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., on March 26, 2011.