Rice by-products boost climate fight

Cookstove using rice husks fabricated by technician Alex Odundo

Rice is steadily overtaking maize and wheat as the staple food in Kenya, prompting the government to adopt strategic interventions to increase production and curb a high import bill amid the climate crisis.

As Kenya contends with low rice production levels and a high import bill, researchers are stepping up efforts to increase yields through regenerative agriculture and the development of rice by-products.

Regenerative agriculture describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.

Kenya imports rice worth about Sh25 billion annually, triggered by the phenomenal growth in consumption that is reversing the preference order of the top three cereals.

Globally, rice is one of the most important food crops. Total annual world production of milled rice currently stands at 400 million metric tonnes, which compares favourably well with maize and wheat, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Unlike maize and wheat which are consumed as human and livestock feed, rice remains the most favoured grain globally for human consumption.

Rising local consumption and the huge import bill have seen the government adopt the Kenya National Rice Development Strategy (KNRDS 2019-2030) dedicated to attaining self-sufficiency, decreasing imports and enhancing the utilisation of rice by-products.

Kenyans currently consume about one million metric tonnes of rice, mostly imported – a figure expected to reach 1.2 million metric tonnes by 2030. The country produces just over 180,000 metric tonnes of rice annually, which is expected to reach 520,000 metric tonnes by 2030.

Increased output has not met sufficiency. Consumption is increasing rapidly. The production and consumption gap is widening within an internal unexploited potential. Kenya must increase production seven times its current levels to achieve the strategy’s triple objective.

“There is potential to place 200,000 hectares in 24 counties under rice production. We want to increase production from four metric tonnes per hectare to 7.5 or more through new varieties, good seed and better agronomic practices,” says the Head of the Rice Promotion Programme in the Ministry of Agriculture Dr Mary Mutembei.

The ministry is working closely with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) and Kilimo Trust, a not-for-profit organisation engaged in research on the region’s agricultural development for 18 years, to meet the strategy’s objectives.

Kenya’s strategy is aligned with the East African Community (EAC) partner states’ new joint EAC Rice Development Strategy (ERDS) that aims at mitigating the low and poor production food insecurity challenge, growing import dependence and the impacts of climate change.

Supported by the Coalition for Rice Development in Africa (CARD), ERDS aspires to facilitate intra-regional trade as a measure to boost food and nutrition security and contribute towards reducing dependence on imports worth $300 million (Sh45.9 million) annually in the EAC region.

Working closely with the EAC Secretariat in supporting the EAC’s new rice development strategy, Kilimo Trust is highlighting its latest research project – the Reuse Reduce Recycle Rice Initiative for Climate Smart Agriculture (R4iCSA) – to complement the ERDS objectives.

The R4iCSA project, supported by the IKEA Foundation, seeks to increase the adoption of sustainable rice production practices for 10,000 smallholder rice farmers and other value chain actors in Kenya and Uganda. Other than boosting farmers’ production levels, the project seeks to curb the impacts of climate change on the rice value chain. It further aims at building robust evidence of the economic benefits of innovations that utilise rice products and by-products. R4iCSA project leader Anthony Mugambi says: “By promoting the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable rice production plays a critical role in managing water use efficiently, helping combat climate change.”  

Among the major rice by-products gaining farmers’ adoption in Kenya is biochar, made from rice husks – the waste after rice is milled. Biochar is a charcoal-like substance made from burning organic material like agricultural and forest waste, in this case, rice husks.

Biochar can be made from any organic (carbon-containing) material such as wood waste or crop residues. The material is then heated at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen in a process called pyrolysis. The result is a charcoal-like material called biochar. As a soil amendment, biochar has the potential to build resilience.

Studies on biochar have analysed its potential as a climate-smart agricultural (CSA) practice, an interactive approach that goes further than sustainable farming methods.  CSA management practices include cover crops, practising no-till or reduced till, and integrated nutrient management strategies.

It aims to substantially ensure crop yields to feed a growing population while positively impacting the livelihoods of the people living and working in the area. CSA enhances soil health, builds climate resilience, and mitigates greenhouse gas emissions.

Kenya’s bid to curb food insecurity through sustainable CSA has been boosted following successful field trials of upland rice in Tharaka Nithi, Embu and Meru counties. The groundbreaking initiative is a joint effort of Kilimo Trust and KALRO.

This is the first time that upland rice has been grown in the semi-arid higher grounds of Kenya, with the potential to greatly contribute to food and nutrition security in the country.

Prof Paul Kimurto, a dryland research and drought stress physiology breeding expert at Egerton University’s Agro-Seed Park Unit, an R4iCSA project partner, commends the qualities of upland rice and its impact on climate-smart agriculture:

“Other than the good yield and the good grain, upland rice also contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” he notes.

Among the rice by-products, biochar can serve as a CSA practice in terms of food production, soil health and environmental stability, leaving water and nutrient footprints with the potential to promote climate resilience.

Biochar benefits include improved uptake of nutrients, enhanced water-holding capacity in sandy soils, and better water balance. Biochar also boosts the thermal economy through darker surfaces, resistance to diseases, microbiological activity and diversity, and the binding and decomposition of plants.

Sustainable rice production practices and cost-benefit analysis on value chains include rice parboiling (partial boiling), biochar (for fertiliser) and the supply of energy.

Parboiled rice, also called converted rice; easy-cook rice, sella rice, and miniket; is rice that has been partially boiled in the husk through soaking, steaming and drying. These steps make the rice easier to process by hand while also boosting its nutritional profile, changing its texture and making it more resistant to weevils.

Bongomin Group Ltd in Uganda is considering using heat produced during bio-composting to make parboiled rice, a value addition in the value chain and an energy-saving solution.

Carbonised rice husks can be used to reduce acidity in the soil and make organic fertiliser, charcoal briquettes, and seed balls that are used to revive dead forests. In Mwea in Kenya and Tororo, Uganda, rice husks are used in cement industries as a source of silica, a component in the cement production process. It is also used in making cardboard.

Safi Organics in Kirinyaga County, one of the R4iCSA project’s partners, has developed a biochar-based fertiliser that increases crop yield and lowers input costs. It increases root structure development, has better decomposition of crop residues, increases water holding capacity, and improves internal drainage and nutrient holding capacity.

“Our decentralised process enables high-quality soil-specific fertiliser production using local rural labour - a solution that is 50 per cent more thermally efficient and 98 per cent more pollution-free. Our tailor-made fertiliser product increases farmers’ yield by 27 per cent,” says Safi Organics CEO Samuel Rigu.

R4iCSA project partner Alex Odundo has developed efficient rice husk stoves in consultation with Kilimo Trust and the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI).

Mr Odundo says the uptake of rice husks as an alternative source of energy should be encouraged as a business opportunity, with fabricated rice husks stoves distributed to markets and communities to be used for cooking and frying fish. Bigger versions can be adopted by schools for boiling large amounts of food.

Clean energy innovators in Kenya and Uganda continue to improve rice husk stoves to produce less smoke or no smoke at all.

Other uses of rice by-products include vermijuice production from red worms and rice straw decomposition through a process known as vermicomposting, commercial maggots for animal feed and organic compost (using rice bran) production and mushroom production using by-products rice straws and rice husks.

The R4iCSA project is expected to lead to the increased adoption of sustainable rice production practices, awareness of wetlands conservation and protection, and the increased adoption of rice-legume integration (green grams, soya beans, chicken peas) among rice farmers.

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