Most urban dwelling Ugandans have met SWT. Either they have seen their iconic 50kg sacks, walked past an advert, or eaten their fragrance rice. Most urban dwelling Ugandans may not however know that SWT stands for the names of the three brothers that started the company that has became synonymous across the country for quality Basmati rice.
We caught up with Taha Munir, the ‘T’ in SWT, a day after he appeared on a T.V cooking show with his brother Waqas. Munir laughs as he talks about preparing a the traditional Asian dish of chicken biryani for Men Can Cook, “[My brother] did the hard stuff and I cooked the rice”. For the show, which airs weekly on NBS, the two were eager to to demonstrate just how good their long grain Basmati was.
Taha is proud of the fact that SWT was the first company to import long grain Basmati into the Ugandan market. The company only sources its Basmati from a district in Pakistan’s Punjab region called Sialkot. Apparently the Sheikh of Dubai is known to only eat rice from this area. So, what makes this Basmati so special?
“From the Himalaya mountains, the snow melts and becomes about four rivers; two of the rivers pass through Sialkot,” Munir tells us, explaining that the clean glacial water is part of what makes rice from the region such high quality. Conversely, most rice in Uganda is grown in swampy areas where the water is abundant but stagnant and far from clean. Munir tells us however that clean water is not all it takes to grow high quality rice: “The main thing in rice is the seed…but there is also the effect of the soil”.
Munir explains that Basmati means “the one which smells or has a smell’. “When former American President Bush sr. was in power, he took Basmati seeds from India and planted them in Texas,” hoping to transplant the goodness and spoils of Basmati rice to his home State. When the first harvest came around, the grains looked good and healthy, but when cooked they lacked something important; the aroma. “Now that was because of the soil,” says Munir, illustrating the similar challenge faced by Ugandan rice growers.
The reason why one of the largest importers of Pakistani rice has been visiting rice farms is not out of mere curiosity. As of May, SWT added Ugandan rice to its range of products, with the locally sourced grains being processed in a newly installed milling facility on the factory grounds. The facility is made up of a line of machines through which the rice passes, being transported between each by an internal elevator system. Each of the machines serves a separate purpose, from removing the rice husks, to sorting out stones, removing dust, polishing each grain with water, sorting out the broken grains and filtering out the discoloured ones, cooling the rice before packing it into sacks and sealing them mechanically.
Most rice is sourced from small-scale farmers in rural areas who are not organised into unions or cooperatives, they may find micro-millers with a single machine on the back of a small truck that comes to them quicker and easier than transporting their produce to Kampala, even if they get less for it. Though S.W.T. is planning to build collection centres around the country, they acknowledge that it is only the beginning of the journey, with most of these problems being solvable over time by building relationships with farmers.
Munir says SWT’s plans to prioritise long term relationships over short term gains means equipping farmers with good seeds and best practices to improve the quality of their product and get them a better return on their labour. Though it is still early days, there is a feeling that long term partnerships up and down the supply chain may, in a few decades, produce Uganda’s very own Sialkot.