Startup promises to fix rice farming’s methane problem


— Photos by Lano Lan

SINGAPORE: Rice farming is a surprisingly large source of planet-warming methane.

Yet while a solution to tackle emissions has existed for decades, farmers haven’t embraced it. Now, a startup has found a way to get them on board with a technique that can halve harmful emissions.

Singapore-based Rize has raised US$14mil in Series A funding, a round co-led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, GenZero, Temasek and Wavemaker Impact.

Rice is responsible for about 10% of global methane emissions, due to the way it’s grown. The crop is largely grown in flooded fields as a weed-avoidance practice, since other grasses aren’t adapted to live under flooded conditions.

The water cuts off soil and organic matter from oxygen, which leads to the production of methane, a gas that has 80 times the near-term global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Rize plans to tackle this issue by helping farmers use a simple technique called alternate wetting and drying, which involves drying out rice paddies for brief periods throughout the season.

As the rice canopy grows, it becomes safe to dry out the field and thus reduce methane emissions. It’s a proven technique, but farmers aren’t implementing it because they have no incentive to, according to Ben Runkle, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

Rize gets around that hurdle by selling farmers seeds, fertiliser, pesticides and other inputs for a slightly lower price than local farm stores in exchange for implementing the practice.

It can offer a lower price by buying those supplies in bulk at wholesale discounts that smallholder farms can’t get, said chief executive officer Dhruv Sawhney.

Farmers “are taking a risk on their livelihood every time they change an agricultural practice, especially one like changing your irrigation,” said Marie Cheong, founding partner of Wavemaker Impact. “So we had to really think through what would be the right incentive model for farmers adopting this practice to be worthwhile.”

Through on-the-ground research with farmers, Rize’s investors discovered that the three things that influenced farmer behaviour were improving yield, helping increase sales prices and cheaper inputs. The last is the simplest lever to pull.

Armed with this information, the investors put together a plan for what would become Rize and then brought in a team to execute the vision.

Currently, the startup is working with farming co-ops in Indonesia and Vietnam and plans on expanding to other parts of South and South-East Asia.

It also plans on expanding its revenue stream as early as this year to include the sale of carbon credits Rize will generate from the resulting methane emissions reductions, revenue which it plans on splitting with farmers, Sawhney said.

The company is now on its third farming season and services about 2,500ha. Early tests showed methane emissions reduced by as much as 50%. — Bloomberg

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