Myan­mar farm­ers dream of mak­ing Asia’s rice bowl

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY JEROME TAY­LOR AND NAN TIN HTWE

Dressed in Chelsea soc­cer shorts and a wide-brimmed hat, Than Tun toils away in his paddy fie­zld on the out­skirts of Yan­gon, sweat pour­ing down his sinewy arms.

Gru­el­ing work that once helped Myan­mar be­come the world’s largest rice ex­porter is to­day a Her­culean and of­ten lonely job for farm­ers striv­ing to re­turn the im­pov­er­ished na­tion to its for­mer grain prow­ess.

“No one comes here and asks about the dif­fi­cul­ties we face,” the 40-year-old tells AFP dur­ing his break, cit­ing vo­ra­cious in­sects, crum­bling ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nels and greedy mid­dle­men as just some of the chal­lenges pre­vent­ing him mak­ing a profit.

For much of the early 20th cen­tury Myan­mar was Asia’s rice bowl. But af­ter a nom­i­nally so­cial­ist junta seized power in 1962, decades of mis­man­age­ment shat­tered the agri­cul­ture in­dus­try in a na­tion where 70 per­cent of in­hab­i­tants still live in the coun­try­side.

The quasi-civil­ian re­formist gov­ern­ment, which took over from the mil­i­tary in 2011, is determined to res­ur­rect the coun­try’s rep­u­ta­tion as a rice pro­ducer.

But rot­ting stocks, creak­ing in­fra­struc­ture, heav­ily in­debted farm­ers and min­i­mal for­eign in­vest­ment are among the hur­dles it faces.

Yet many econ­o­mists be­lieve help­ing farm­ers like Than Tun of­fers Myan­mar one of the fastest ways to both al­le­vi­ate poverty and turn around the coun­try’s for­tunes.

‘Low hang­ing fruit’

“Im­prove­ments in agri­cul­ture are one of the gen­uine ‘ low hang­ing fruit’ of re­forms that could do much, re­mark­ably quickly,” said Sean Tur­nell, an ex­pert on Myan­mar’s econ­omy at Australia’s Mac­quarie Uni­ver­sity.

“This is not just the­ory — we can see Viet­nam as a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of what is pos­si­ble. A coun­try that could barely feed it­self in the 1980s now dom­i­nates var­i­ous food and com­mod­ity cat­e­gories,” he added.

Sergiy Zorya, a Bangkok-based ex­pert on rice pro­duc­tion at the World Bank, agrees it is high time Myan­mar and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity did more to in­vest in rice farm­ers.

“A sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in rice pro­duc­tiv­ity and yields over the next decade would of­fer a ma­jor op­por­tu­nity to drive GDP growth, in­crease farm­ing in­comes, in­crease ex­ports and re­duce poverty,” he said.

Rice is a good poverty al­le­vi­a­tion tool, he ex­plains, be­cause money ac­tu­ally fil­ters down to poor farm­ers rather than rest­ing in the hands of cor­po­ra­tions or mid­dle­men.

He points to Cam­bo­dia, which has heav­ily in­vested in im­prov­ing rice pro­duc­tion and ex­ports. Over the past 10 years each one per­cent in­crease in GDP has re­sulted in re­duc­ing the coun­try’s poverty rate by 5.2 per­cent.

“But in Laos, an econ­omy dom­i­nated by hy­dro-power and min­ing, a one per­cent growth in GDP re­sults in just a 0.5 per­cent poverty re­duc­tion,” he adds.

Myan­mar is for­tu­nate to have both huge nat­u­ral re­sources and farm­ing po­ten­tial. But it is the for­mer that has piqued the in­ter­est of for­eign in­vestors scram­bling to ac­cess the sec­tor as the coun­try opens up.

For­eign In­vest­ment

On the north­west­ern out­skirts of Yan­gon lies Shwe Pyi Tar, a dusty sub­urb of wooden shacks over­shad­owed by huge ware­houses, where most of Myan­mar’s rice har­vest is milled.

Kyaw Win, who owns one of the area’s larger pro­cess­ing plants, is des­per­ate for the gov­ern­ment to clear the hur­dles for for­eign­ers to in­vest in the rice in­dus­try.

“Our farm­ers need more knowl­edge about how to har­vest more ef­fi­ciently. At the mo­ment we are cre­at­ing a lot of waste,” he says, as work­ers haul heavy sacks of un­milled rice be­hind him.

Lack of good stor­age fa­cil­i­ties means most farm­ers are forced to sell their rice shortly af­ter the har­vest — when prices are at their low­est.

Mean­while, Myan­mar’s mills are no­to­ri­ously in­ef­fi­cient — some are still steam-pow­ered — and pro­duce low-qual­ity rice that is hard to ex­port and sold on the cheap.

In one of Kyaw Win’s ware­houses a group of Ja­panese tech­ni­cians in­stall a gleam­ing new US$3-mil­lion mill con­trolled by a com­pli­cated bank of com­put­ers.

The rice whole­saler is one of the few busi­ness­men with hard cash to buy new equip­ment in an in­dus­try where most find re­stric­tive fi­nan­cial rules pre­vent them in­vest­ing in mod­ern mills.

Kyaw Win says the largest loan he can ac­cess lo­cally is around US$1.5 mil­lion, which he would need to pay off within a year. But the en­tre­pre­neur is among the luck­ier ones al­ready ex­pand­ing his busi­ness.

“We have plans for a big­ger plant, which we’ve al­ready or­dered. That will cost US$5-6 mil­lion,” he said, adding that for­eign in­vest­ment would help other com­pa­nies like his bring Myan­mar’s rice pro­duc­tion back on track.

Than Tun is also dreaming of a bet­ter fu­ture, but he has smaller goals, start­ing with de­cent ir­ri­ga­tion.

The sys­tem for his paddy fields, only 20 kilo­me­ters (12 miles) from fast de­vel­op­ing down­town Yan­gon, was built in his grand­fa­ther’s time while his vil­lage Htaw Bo still lacks elec­tric­ity.

“The gov­ern­ment is not help­ing the farm­ers much. We have to take care of the ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem our­selves,” he says, ad­mit­ting he has never voted and taken lit­tle in­ter­est so far in the land­mark elec­tion slated for later this year.

“From what I can tell there’s noth­ing of­fered for us,” he concludes. “We just have to be on our own.”

And with that he re­turns to his field.

AFP

In this pic­ture taken on April 6, a farmer works in his golden-and-green paddy field on the out­skirts of Yan­gon.

AFP

In this pic­ture taken on April 6, a ven­dor works on his rice stall at a mar­ket in Yan­gon.

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