Costs and Benefits of Improving Rice Yields for Farmers in Haiti

By Alex Russell

At one time, rice farmers in Haiti could meet demand for all Haitians. Today, national rice production accounts for less than one-fifth of consumption. Increasing the amount of rice farmers can grow could be key to reducing poverty and improving food security in Haiti, especially among the 1.6 million people who live in the Artibonite Valley, the largest rice-producing region in the nation.

Rice farmers in Haiti's Artibonite Valley could boost yield with new practices, but at a cost, say UC Davis researchers.

Rice farmers in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley could boost yield with new practices, but at a cost, say UC Davis researchers.

Travis Lybbert, a professor of agricultural and resource economics and principal investigator for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets and Market Access at UC Davis, presented a possible solution to increasing Haiti’s rice productivity on May 2, 2017 at the Copenhagen Consensus Haiti Priorise event held in Port au Prince, Haiti.

“What they want for Haiti Priorise are the most sensible solutions for Haiti,” said Lybbert. “The intervention we are suggesting could increase rice production by a quarter billion tons of rice, but at a cost.”

The Copenhagen Consensus is a US-based think tank that researches the most cost-effective solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges. Since 2002, the organization has held events around the world to present recommendations from their panel of experts to policy makers, philanthropists and development organizations.

Last fall, Lybbert was invited to join the “Eminent Panel” on Haiti with other leading economists from around the world to evaluate one of 46 solutions that cover agriculture, poverty, health, education, the environment and other priorities the nation. Each panelist has evaluated how well each solution might achieve its intended purpose, and assigned a cost/benefit ratio to show the return on the money spent.

Pros and cons of well-known rice growing method

In a recent study, Lybbert evaluated a rice production method known as SRI, or System of Rice Intensification. The system was developed in the 1980s in Madagascar, and has since then been touted as an innovation that benefits poor farmers because it uses dramatically less seed, fertilizer and water than traditional growing methods. However, SRI also demands more labor because the recommended intermittent-watering requires more work dedicated to weeding.

Lybbert partnered with Oxfam America and the Université d’Etat d’Haïti, to evaluate how broader adoption of SRI in Haiti would change the yields and livelihoods of farmers in the Artibonite Valley, which produces about 80 percent of the nation’s rice.

The majority of farmers currently plant month-old seedlings close together and keep their plots flooded throughout the season. SRI requires farmers to plant seedlings less than two weeks old, and sparsely. Plots are also allowed to dry out before they are watered again.

“SRI was completely new for these farmers,” said Lybbert. “No one would think of planting seedlings that early, or letting a field dry out.”

Lybbert said that the results of the study are insightful and valuable but complicated. Among the 300 farmers who were trained in SRI methods, yields increased by 14 percent. However, he found even higher yield increases among farmers who used some combination of improved practices rather than the full SRI methods.

For Haiti Priorise, Lybbert estimated that scaling up SRI training and encouraging adoption across the entire Artibonite Valley could boost production by 230 million metric tons over seven years. However, to do so would cost about $57.7 million and have a benefit of only $43.7 million. The final estimated benefit/cost ratio he reported was 0.76.

“Our analysis is not to throw a wet blanket on SRI as a total package, but to show that it’s not for everyone,” Lybbert said. “Farmers who might benefit need to self-select into it.”

Even small gains in productivity help the poor

Changes in agricultural practices are particularly challenging to make cost-effective at scale compared to other interventions, Lybbert said. For example, immunizing all Haitian children before they reach one year old will pay back an estimated 13-fold at a cost of $35.3 million. But even small improvements in crop yields, he said, can make a difference.

“If you care about the poor then you have to care about agriculture,” he said. “That’s how most people in the world get their food and make a living. So increasing productivity by even five to 10 percent makes a big difference.”

More information

Read Travis Lybbert’s report for Haiti rice production:

Learn more about the SRI evaluation in Haiti:

More about the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets and Market Access at UC Davis

Alex Russell is communications manager with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets and Market Access in the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. 

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