Gasping for Breath

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Otukpo rice mill
Otukpo rice mill

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Otukpo Rice Mill, which used to employ about 5000 people in Benue State is now on its sick bed

By Pita Ochai  |  Dec. 17, 2012 @ 01:00 GMT  |

OTUKPO Rice Mill, which is regarded as one of the biggest in the West African sub-region, is gasping for breath. Activities at the once booming industry, established more than 50 years ago, have declined. The rice mill, equipped with about 200 milling machines, occupies 20 hectares of land within the quiet town of Otukpo, Benue State. Now, most of the machines are idle in different buildings within the mill complex.

Ten years ago, the industry, which used to be the largest employer of labour of about 5,000 in the Benue South Senatorial zone, currently has about 1,500 persons in its employment. The major problem is that most of the machines are old and cannot meet modern demands of rice milling. Another reason for the decline is attributed to the inability of the rice produced at the mill to compete with imported rice. In addition, the growing taste for foreign rice especially among urban dwellers in Nigeria, has also contributed to the decline in the patronage of Otukpo rice mill.

Ever since the mill was established, it had served as market for raw rice products from different parts of the country. In its booming days, millers had enough supply of raw rice within and outside the state and even from far away northern states such as Adamawa, Katsina, and Taraba. At that time, about 40 to 50 truckloads of rice were milled weekly. But now, the mill hardly gets an average of four trucks in a week even at the peak of harvest period when raw rice should be most available.

Ocheche Obogo, chairman, Rice Millers Association, Otukpo, acknowledges the steady decline in actiavities at the mill, attributing it to the growing taste for foreign rice. This, he explains has negatively affected the demand for locally produced rice. During its booming days, a large chunk of the mill’s rice was marketed outside Benue State in towns like Lagos, Agbor, Onitsha, and other south – eastern towns. But the demands of the products from these cities have drastically dropped.

“You know all these towns also have access to foreign rice just like the local rice. We have not been able to face the competition with the products from outside the country. The truth is that foreign rice producers operate on economy of scale which makes their products cheaper. But we in this part of the world still rely on the obsolete technology inherited from our fathers. The capital is not there to obtain modern milling machines,” he said.

Winnowers at Otukpo rice mill
Winnowers at Otukpo rice mill

Consequently, most young people who were employed in the mill are now unemployed or underemployed. Egwa Valentine, a graduate of Psychology from the University of Jos, is one of them. He makes a living from offloading and loading bags of rice from trucks at the Otukpo rice mill. Valentine told Realnews that he had been doing the job since 1997, and it was from his earning at the mill that he was able to raise enough money to finance his education from secondary school to the university level. Even with his degree in Psychology, he still goes to the mill every morning to load and offload bags of rice. Valentine said that he had to fall back on the same job that enabled him to finance his education and earn a degree after a fruitless search for a white collar job.

Many young Nigerians like Valentine have been able to achieve much in the past by working either directly or indirectly at the mill, but with its steady decline, the fear is that more people might be forced into the labour market. Valentine believes equipping the mill with modern machines would be the solution to the problem. “If we have modern machines, we can repackage our rice to meet international standard and this would eventually open the market for export that will earn foreign exchange for the country,” he said.

The Otukpo Rice Mill experience is not different from that of other agro-based industries in Nigeria. According to Reuben Terwase, an agricultural economist, agriculture-related activities at whatever level would be on the decline if the government continues to pay lip service to its agricultural policy. “For Nigeria to be self-sustaining in food production, the government would have to be there to help those involved in agricultural activities at whatever level. In the countries where Nigeria imports the rice, go there and see how agricultural activities are highly subsidised,” he said. It is estimated Nigeria spend about N360 billion annually in the importation of rice.

This notwithstanding, Nigerians who have stopped consuming locally-produced rice might be missing the nutritional content of the product. Evelyn Aboh, a nutritionist, said that locally-produced rice remains the best in terms of nutrition, though it might take some task to prepare to ensure that its grit contents are removed. “If pain is taken to remove the grit, which many people don’t want to, your locally-produced rice has enough nutrients for your body,” she said.

Drying parboiled rice for the mill
Drying parboiled rice for the mill

Though the mill might not be in tune with modern practice, it is interesting to observe how division of labour is practiced at the mill. The process begins with the traders, who go all out in search of raw rice products from farmers within and outside the state. After supply of the raw rice to the mill, men of different ages make their living from offloading the bags of raw rice from the trucks. People known as cooks are involved in the parboiling of the raw rice. The same people spread the parboiled rice in the sun to dry the following day, and after drying for about a day, it is parked for milling. The cooks get their regular supply of fire woods from hackers. Vans supply the mill with logs of woods which are hacked into smaller pieces by about 40 registered men of middle ages.

Matthew Davids, a 62-year old wood hacker, earns his living from hacking log of wood for the cooks. From his average income of N1000 a day, David is able to meet the basic needs of his family members including educational bill for his four children in secondary school. According to him, a total of 200 wood hackers are registered members of Wood Hackers’ Association at the Otukpo Rice Mill.

The pain of the operators of the rice mill is that there are no efforts by government to help modernise the facilities. All the policies of the federal and state governments on agriculture and agro-allied industries seem not to have touched the mill. Even the Otukpo local government that is closest to the people, is only interested in collecting revenue from the mill leaving operators to source almost everything needed to stay in business. Water, electricity, and good roads are still beyond the reach of the mill operators.

Inalegwu Onyilo, information officer, Otukpo Local Government Council, agreed that the mill is very important to the council as a large chunk of its revenue is derived from it. “In the last five years , the local government council has not done much for the mill because we don’t have enough funds to meet their demands,” Onyilo said.

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