Cover Photo: Katelyn Tan

From installing rice-dryers in Myanmar to starting their own brand of rice, Lincoln Lee, Kisum Chan, Zheyi Chia and Jonathan Ong speak to us about their award-winning social enterprise, Rice Inc

Have you ever heard anyone compare growing rice grains to ageing whisky or harvesting truffles? Rice Inc believes that the best-tasting rice come from empowered farmers, which is why they reinvest 20 per cent of all profits back into global sustainable rice initiatives. The company not only works with villages in Myanmar and Sabah to cultivate an impact space, improving efficiency and yield, but also develops their own brand of rice called Paddi, a direct-trade rice brand. 

We interview co-founders Lincoln Lee and Kisum Chan; operations director Zheyi Chia; and rice impact deputy chairman Jonathan Ong about starting a 'rice revolution'. The three Malaysians and one HongKonger (Chan) recently appeared on the inaugural 50 Next list from 50 Best.

How did the team meet? 

Lincoln Lee: Kisum and I were coursemates studying biomedical sciences in University College London (UCL). In 2018, we both decided to participate in the Hult Prize, a United Nations competition hosted by President Clinton, which challenges university students to come up with a social enterprise. The topic for our year was harnessing the power of energy to impact 10 million people by 2025. Kisum and I focused on agriculture, as we wanted to concentrate on issues in Southeast Asia.

We discovered that up to 30 per cent of rice is wasted before it arrives on our plates.

We found this odd—how can a food that feeds 4 billion people everyday garner so much waste? This thought is what inspired Kisum and I to start Rice Inc, which eventually won us the Hult Prize. I knew Jonathan from university, who later joined the team and helped us with initial accounting issues. He later introduced us to Zheyi, who had experience working in rural communities, when we were trying to expand our impact work.

See also: 6 Ways That Restaurants Are Serving Langit Collective Rice

What is a highlight of Rice Inc’s journey?

LL: Though we've had many achievements, such as winning the Hult Prize and getting into Forbes Asia's 30 under 30 list, the most important moment for me was when we installed our first site in Myanmar and met our second customer, a single mother whose crops had been ruined by the rain. We had just installed a dryer in her village, allowing her to dry her crops. She only has two harvests a year, and the dryer allowed her to gain 6 months' worth of income, which would otherwise have been lost. When we arrived at the village, she was waiting to thank us with her family; it made me realise that even if the social enterprise itself did not work out, we had already helped one person.

See also: Asia’s Most Influential: Malaysia’s 30 Tastemakers 2021

What are the ways Rice Inc contributes to sustainable rice farming? 

Kisum Chan: We believe the best rice is grown by empowered farmers, who have access to the necessary resources. At the moment, farmers lose 30 per cent of their crops due to a lack of farming equipment, which they are unable to afford due to trade with middlemen, which lowers their price potential. To put this into perspective, the average rice farmer in Asia gets a lower percentage of earnings than the profits generated from a cup of coffee—less than 5 per cent. We believe direct trade is the future and want to move towards this in a three step process, called the Paddi Way:

  1. Firstly, 20 per cent of our profits are reinvested into sustainable initiatives, thus giving farmers access to better farming equipment and increasing sustainability throughout the industry.
  2. Secondly, direct sourcing from farmers helps ensure fair market prices, quality and transparency.
  3. Thirdly, we want to pay ethical, above-market prices to ensure farmers are able to reinvest money into improving the quality of their grains.

This direct supply chain reduces waste such as transportation emissions and is more streamlined, connecting farmers to consumers. We also have a commitment that all Paddi retail rice packaging will be compostable, which will make Paddi the world's first rice brand with compostable packaging. 

See also: These Malaysian Activists & Lifestyle Brands Make Sustainability Easy

How is Paddi rice different from other rice? 

Zheyi Chia: Paddi rice is grown artisanally; there are differences with regards to soil content and seeds. These regional varieties from Southeast Asia cannot be found anywhere else in the world. In Malaysia, all our rice is hand-farmed, without using destructive technology so that nutrients and taste are preserved. For our rice that's being sold in the UK, we focus on improving the grain taste by empowering farmers and providing them with suitable equipment, so they are able to improve their rice quality. Our supply trade is also transparent, so consumers know exactly where the grains come from and how it gets to your plate.

Jonathan Ong: The rice that's grown for Paddi is not a commercial seed, but something that the local farmers have been growing independently for generations. Following each harvest, part of the seed is kept and reused. These rare varieties of rice are not found outside the villages, as they are not commercialised.

ZC: We also offer a variety of rice called aged rice, in which the fibres are broken down to release nutrients, making each grain fluffier and tastier. We are always ready to explore different types of rice, which we want to share with the wider culinary world. For the past 50 years, farmers have only been growing these varieties for self-consumption, and have passed them down from generation to generation. Our rice is especially fragrant, especially the red variety. Our black rice has more of an earthy texture while our white rice was described perfectly by Lincoln: it's reminiscent of barley and oats

Do expand on your varieties of rice. Where can our readers get some?

ZC: Currently, we offer three varieties in Southeast Asia: red, black and white rice. Not unlike truffles, rice is best sold when it's in season so our consumers are able to detect their distinct flavours. In the UK, we focus on Jasmine, Thai Hom Mali, Basmati and sushi rice. Again, we focus on regional varieties. All our rice can be found on (UK) or (Malaysia). 

KC: At the moment, we are only available for retail in the UK and Malaysia, but due to the nature of our product we are not limited by where we can ship to; we have customers in the US and Australia too.

What is your vision for Rice Inc in the future?

JO: We hope to expand our infrastructure—farmers can capture greater value for their product—while developing a more equitable, transparent supply chain, targeting both upstream and downstream, such as warehousing, merchanting, distribution and packaging. Technology and digitisation will be our primary tools. For example, in Myanmar, the price of rice is listed on a blackboard in Yangon some three hours away from our village; as a result, this information is not available to many farmers and even middlemen. Through our digital platform, we will enable farmers, middlemen and end-buyers alike access to real-time prices, enabling more transparent and equitable transactions.

We are also constantly looking to introduce further innovations to the industry. Rice as a crop generates a lot of greenhouse gases, so we are also looking into developing more carbon-saving methods of production.

KC: All our future plans have one common denominator: we want to start a rice revolution. We believe that many issues in the rice industry are interlinked, and solving them will allow us to grow the tastiest, most sustainable grains at Paddi.

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