By Sally French
It’s becoming an increasingly important goal for Costa Rica’s rice makers to bring in new ideas, says Eric Villalobos, production head at Arroz Saberno, a rice factory in Liberia.
As competition grows through international trade, it’s up to producers like the Arroz Sabanero factory to help the country’s economy remain sustainable, Villalobos says.
The factory’s rice sells for about 30,000 colones a sack; the same size sack of rice imported from the United States costs about 15,000 colones, he says.
“Because of that, [some rice manufacturers] are seeing this as an advantage and are starting to import the rice and selling it,” Villalobos says through a translator. “It’s creating an imbalance in the amount of rice that’s being produced here, the amount that they’re able to sell it for and what it’s actually worth.”
The Arroz Sabanero factory is one of seven rice factories in Costa Rica, employing workers from the local community. If this rice factory were to close, Villalobos said people would lose their jobs, leading to social problems and issues such as drug use.
The Costa Rican government regulates 80 percent of the rice produced in the country, creating an imbalance of rice prices and eliminating the competition, Villalobos says. “They’d rather sacrifice some of the rice and bring in a whole lot,” he says. “It’s an economic stress right now, but we’re learning to live with it.”
About a year ago, a group of Ticos involved in rice production went to the U.S. government with an official complaint. “We told them, ‘you need to fix this,’” Villalobos says. “Fix it, make it competitive, so we can all sustain ourselves and compete.”
To fight that, owners are working to get new laws passed to block rice from being imported. “It’s everyone having to work together because it’s the same person, so it’s creating a unison,” he says.
Within Arroz Sabanero, Villalobos says he hopes to remain competive by running an efficient factory, which means investing in machinery. But, just as with international trade, he says it’s a challenge to get everyone to cooperate with his new ideas.
Some others in the company “are stuck in the old ways,” Villalobos says through a translator. “Then years later they realize they love it.”
“You’ve always got to be learning, be active, be trying new things,” Villalobos says. “If you don’t, you’re going to die.”