AMOS ABBA writes on the dilapidating state of Benue’s Otukpo rice mill; a once burgeoning enterprise now cast in despair and under productivity.
In the hot and humid sun of the Benue region, building number 2, located within the premises of the popular Otukpo rice mills looks undignified. Wearing a rusted corrugated roof which bears the insignia of old age, it deserted parking lot reflect the sorry state of a rice mill created over 50 years ago for commercial purposes.
The scanty flow of customers in and out of the building does not typify the flurry of activities that usually welcomes the peak of the harvest season when paddy rice is milled and processed at the mill in the past.
Valentine Egwa was working on a faulty rice huller, a machine that removes husk from paddy rice when the reporter met him. A graduate of psychology from the University of Jos, Egwa’s failed attempt to clinch a white – collar job compelled him to be involved in the production process of rice at the mill since 1997. Ever since acquiring rice hullers some years ago, he has become an employer of labour at the mill. However, Egwa is quick to renounce the traditional practices involved in the trade.
Said he; “The problem affecting Otukpo rice mill is the crude methods used to process rice locally. This makes the rice not to be stone free, making customers prefer imported rice to locally processed ones”.
Records of observation at the mill confirmed Egwa’s assertion. Many of the hullers used in processing the rice are aged and archaic, with many having been in existence as far back as 80 years ago. The poor facilities make it impossible for the mill to compete with marketers of foreign rice.
Otukpo rice mill with its sketchy history is arguably the first commercial rice milling plant in West Africa, set- up and managed by the defunct Idoma technical trading company (I.T.T.C). Located in Otukpo local government area of Benue state, the mill was created to provide gainful employment opportunities to the Idoma- speaking people of the middle belt and Benue state in particular.
At the time the mill was established, projections were set that Otukpo would be a commercial nerve center in the middle belt region of the country. The hope of the projection was hinged on the fact that the mill would attract traders from different parts of the country to Otukpo for the purchase of its locally processed rice. The rice mill once boasted a staff strength of 3,000 people involved in the different stages of rice processing, working day and night equipped with over 200 milling engines spanning over 20 hectares of land.
It was the largest employer of labour in its heyday in Otukpo and served as a veritable source of livelihood to many people. But those were the past glories; adversity had weighed in on Otukpo rice mill in the late nineties. Undermined by decrepit infrastructure, under-utilized labour force and under-performance; major customers from different states across the country no longer patronized the mill. The long distance involved in transportation of the rice products also contributes in no small measure to the dwindling fortunes of the mill.
There is evidence to suggest that the now decrepit mill used to be a booming enterprise providing jobs for young people and women. Samuel Ochigbo, a resident in the area reminisced about the mill when it was still booming.
“The rice mill provided jobs for people in the area. They were those selling fire wood to the millers and those providing water for pay. Everyone, both young and old had something to do. The rice chaff usually gathered was very high from the ground. It was a sight to behold until things began to decline steadily.”
With the federal government’s position on banning the importation of foreign rice; there appears to be prospects for local millers in the country as government’s expenditure would be channeled to utilizing the production capacity of the various rice millers across the country.
However, some rice farmers are not optimistic as there appear to be virtually no plan to strengthen and boast local production.
“You cannot ban importation of rice by legislation and expect everything to be fine. If certain steps are not taken to position the local millers to bridge the demand- supply gap of local production of rice, then consumers will face the horror of skyrocket prices of local rice if there is a total ban,” Valentine Egwa pointed out.
Millers in Otukpo rice mill face serious hurdles in meeting the basic requirements level of local rice production because certain critical variables are not available. The mill does not generate its own power so when public power supply is interrupted, commercial activities in the mill grinds to a halt. Workers in the mill rely on water tankers sourced from neighbouring suburbs of Otukpo town like Otobi, Ochobo. The water does not come cheap; it is sold at exorbitant rates especially during the dry season.
James Iduh, a trader at the mill also highlighted some of the problems faced by workers. He urged government to provide more transformers to ensure access to electricity at full voltage as well as provide pipe borne water to help reduce the cost of the production of rice.
Furthering, he said: “We have been introduced to several co-operative societies to secure loans to improve our business but nothing is forthcoming. If government can assist us, it will go a long way in restoring the mill back to life.”
Rice workers at risk
The physical demanding nature of the activities involved in the production of locally processed rice has affected workers productivity and exposed them to serious health risks. Emmanuel Obute, a final year student of the University of Agriculture, Makurdi whose palms have turned coarse as a result of exposure to the fire involved in the process of cooking rice in the mill called on government to come to their aid, saying there should be an endowment fund to cater for those injured in the course of working on the mill plant.
Also, other young people involved in the temporary casual works in the mill to aid their immediate financial needs see their job not only as underpaying but disdainful.
David Baba, who had worked intermittently at the mill on a part-time basis while as a student for six years disclosed that it is difficult to return to the mill to work, considering its present state at a time when locally processed rice is no longer patronized.
“Government should provide modern rice milling engines that separate the rice from stones at subsidized rates to Otukpo rice millers to keep them gainfully employed. This will make young people interested in the business”, he submitted.
Amos Abba is a fresh graduate of Mathematics/ Computer Science Education of University of Agriculture, Makurdi.
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