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Blog Post
6 March 2018

CSR in practice: Basmati farmers in Pakistan

Tenant farmers threshing rice saved from flooded field in Dadu District, Sindh province.

Photo by Oxfam International via Flickr.

Have you ever been to an Indian or a Pakistani restaurant? If so, odds are you ate at least a mouthful of basmati rice. Where does this slender rice come from? Who grows it and how? This blog offers some clues and brings you closer to the production of the world’s most aromatic rice variety.

Basmati rice is only cultivated in Punjab, a region shared between India and Pakistan. Pakistan is one of the largest rice producers in the world; 95% of total rice production in the country is grown in the Punjab region. Much of the variety is concentrated here as well. For instance, the Sheikhpura district of Punjab province in Pakistan cultivates three varieties of basmati rice. On average, smallholder farmers grow rice on 5-7 acres of land using traditional water intensive cultivation methods and seasonal shifts between rice and wheat.

Rice workers are among the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the rice industry. In Sheikhpura, women head close to half of all households and contribute to a lot of physically demanding tasks, especially during the rice planting seasons. Even so, women’s work has traditionally been classified as “assistance” rather than labour, making the role of women in the community an important topic of concern. Meanwhile, the low income associated with rice cultivation makes a significant amount of men migrate to urban centres to find better-paid work. This creates shortage of labour during the growing season. Clearly, there is an acute need for change.

Photo by Khaula Jamil, Oxfam

Shining a light on issues

In 2014, Axfood gave Maplecroft the task to conduct a risk analysis of their products from a human rights perspective. Maplecroft is a global risk and consulting firm, which conducts reports on health and security in different countries. In their report, Pakistan, and specifically the Punjab region, was highlighted as high-risk and scored exceedingly poor on child labour, women’s rights, labour conditions, water scarcity, high agrochemical usage and vulnerability to climate change.

Maplecroft’s investigation showed: small-scale farmers cultivating basmati rice often find themselves stuck in debt traps with the middlemen, that high interest rates keep the farmers in poverty, and that women are forced to withstand tough working conditions during the rice-planting season. Furthermore, harassments and harmful work environment were found to be alarmingly common.

This situation led Axfood to contact Oxfam, a global aid organisation. Axfood also contacted Axfoundation, a non-profit organisation that strives to establish venues and conditions for sustainable change. Axfoundation is independent but often engages in pilot projects with companies within the Axel Johnson Group, such as Axfood. Together with Axfood, Axfoundation assigned Oxfam to conduct a deep analysis of life and working conditions of the rice farmers in the Sheikhpura district of Punjab. The assessment was released in 2016, and its conclusions were then used for improving the livelihoods of the rice farmers in Pakistani Punjab.

The project started in January 2017 and will end in June 2018. It is funded by three private actors: Axfood, Axfoundation and Axfood’s supplier Rol-Ryz, with co-funding from Sida. Oxfam was again assigned as implementing partner together with Doaba Foundation, the local partner in Pakistan. This project is part of Sida’s regional programme in Southeast Asia, Gender Transformative and Responsible Agribusiness Investments in Southeast Asia (GRAISEA), also involving palm oil plantations and fisheries.

The strategy in Punjab is to form 10 Grower’s Organisations with the purpose of training the farmers in sustainable farming methods, raising awareness about better working conditions and strengthening their negotiating power. Through the Grower’s Organisations the farmers get help establishing contacts with researchers from the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, and the University of Agriculture Faislabad. In this way, the farmers are getting sound knowledge about the importance of quality assurance and market demands.

Before the project started we believed that it was better to sell the rice with higher moisture content because it is heavier. With the help of newly won contacts with the rice mill owners we now understand that it is exactly the opposite. We are actually getting better payments for the rice if it contains low moisture,” one of the farmers informed Kristina during the visit.

The project is also strongly focused on gender equality with a minimum requirement of 50% active female participation. Farmers and workers receive training in sustainability standards promoted by the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP). This way, the farmers can reduce negative environmental and social impacts and receive better pay for their produce. In the long run, Axfood and Axfoundation hope that the project will contribute to food security, improved food quality, strengthened resilience to climate change, and reduced water usage.

Photo by Viveka Risberg

Success or staged?

Kristina Areskog Bjurling, Axfood and Viveka Risberg, Axfoundation, travelled to Pakistan in January 2018 to examine the progress of the project. When they visited one of the villages involved in the initiative, they were astounded:

“One of my strongest impressions from Pakistan is from the women in the village of Pindi Ratan Sing. An equal number of men and women were lined up on either side of an open space in the village. The female chairperson that opened the meeting informed us that these days they meet and discuss mutual issues and solutions, and that for the first time the women dared to speak up and take an active role in discussions. My first reaction to this was that it had to be too good to be true. Could it be that the meeting was staged because we were visiting? Had they been rehearsing? However, when several women told similar stories, and even the men joined the discussion about how to make mutual decisions, I realised that what we were witnessing was genuine. It was actually happening,” says Kristina.

During one of the discussions with the farmers they asked one of the landless farmworkers, who are among the poorest in the village, to speak about their experiences. Kristina listened to her story with great interest:

I have worked with rice cultivation for a long time and it is hard work. Before this project I didn’t know that we, as seasonal workers without land of our own, have rights as well,” the woman explained.


Education creates understanding amongst the farmers

Kristina and Viveka also got to meet representatives from all the ten villages who are participating in the project. Among other things, this meant that they could freely discuss women’s health during rice planting season, as well as the strong economic power of the middlemen.

Income is distributed on a household level, meaning that there is a risk that the men control all the money and the work of women goes unrecognised and unpaid. Apart from training with married couples about the benefits of equal work distribution, Kristina and Viveka also took part in a train-the-trainer session about secure pesticide usage in one of the villages. It was led by a farmer, trained by Doaba Foundation who was now passing on his knowledge to fifty other farmers, both women and men.

Photo by lukexmartin via Flickr

Collaboration improves methods 

The importance of water access for rice cultivation cannot be overstated. This poses problems for the rice farmers since groundwater levels in the region are currently decreasing. However, new available methods such as direct seeding of rice can save up to 30% of water usage.

Through Farmer’s Friend – a collaboration with the rice exporter Matco – the farmers receive information about alternative methods and have the opportunity to visit other farmers who have started adopting them. In addition, 200 of the farmers sell their rice directly to Matco for a better price than before. The long-term goal of the project is not to tie farmers to only one rice exporter, but rather to strengthen the farmers’ ability to negotiate prices and choose trading partners of their own.


Planning for the future

To improve legislation and ensure a safe working environment for farmers and farmworkers in Pakistan the project also includes advocacy work on a higher level. This involves pushing decision makers to formally recognize the agricultural sector since there is currently no legislation regulating farmer’s working conditions. A multi-stakeholder platform has been formed with representatives from authorities, universities, Doaba, Oxfam, farmers and exporters. The platform has had successful meetings and will continue to meet in the next phase of the project, starting in July 2018.

In the second phase, more Grower’s Organisations will be formed, along with Farmer’s Associations on a provincial level to provide farmers with higher leverage. The context of the project is complex; it involves both environmental and social aspects, and it is characterized by poverty, corruption and human-rights illiteracy.

Assuming Axfood’s suppliers could start buying directly from smallholder farmers who have adjusted to the SRP’s sustainability standard for rice, Axfood can be part of the solution in improving living standards for smallholder rice farmers in Pakistan’s Punjab.

The SRP standard is to become an official rice certification scheme. It comprises 46 requirements, grouped under eight themes, each aimed at achieving a specific sustainability impact. Working with certification also means additional costs related to such aspects as monitoring and revision and it is crucial to ensure these costs would fall on rice importers and consumers, not the farmers.

All in all, Kristina’s and Viveka’s lasting impression was that the project is succeeding well beyond expectations. The likelihood of upscaling the results and entering a second phase of the project is strong. Ultimately, the effects of climate change are always on the agenda and the question of how to further engage youth remains a challenge, but the villagers are looking to the future with hope. A concluding remark from Viveka highlights the challenges ahead:

“There is low awareness about labour conditions in rice production among consumers and retailers. If consumers would demand fair rice the way they demand fair fashion, more companies would take action. We welcome more actors to join us on this journey. Who knows, it might be time for a Nordic Rice Initiative?”, says Viveka Risberg.


Based on a previous blog article by Kristina Areskog Bjurling, responsible for sustainable product management at Axfood, and an interview with Viveka Risberg, Programme Director at Axfoundation.