Chari Ratwatte, 2009 Social Innovation Fellow

Reviving Heirloom Rice in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, a significant proportion of the population consists of rice paddy farmers who operate mostly at subsistence level. Battered by economic realities, poor policies, price volatility, and weather variability, and conditioned into welfare dependency, families of small-scale farmers often break up to seek supplemental work in the cities, making them vulnerable to isolation, alcoholism, and depression. When populist price controls and stop-gap imports of cheaper rice leave local farmers unable to pay their debts, sometimes weeks ahead of the harvest, many resort to suicide.

Rural Returns is an organization that is helping these farmers find new hope through the cultivation of heirloom rice for sale in global markets. The organization is accomplishing its goal through a four-pronged approach. First, it is connecting farmers with small groups that have preserved high-value traditional grains and can provide the knowledge, technology, and support to return to sustainable practices. Second, it is establishing a nonexploitative, reliable supply chain connected to local and global distributors. Third, it is creating an umbrella brand for additional exotic rural products. Fourth, it is enabling community-driven development with the increased income resulting from the higher-value goods produced.