Inside Nigeria’s rice mills where manual, child labour thrive


The clatter of the belt against the roller sets a familiar motion for the workers. The resulting noise brings a grim countenance to the faces of the workers.

In an instant, those feeding their babies stopped, while the ones eating hastened up. Others engaged in other chores outside shelved them and the dusty engine room once again became lively.

A powered rice huller engine is an indication of a good day at Engine Hajia (literally, Hajia’s engine house). Saad Bala, the operator of the engine had tried to put it on the previous day but the huller refused to start, rendering scores idle for the day.

Engine Hajia is one of the over 50 rice hulling factories in Wukari Local Government Area of Taraba State.

Taraba on the rice map

According to the US Department of Agriculture, Nigeria now produces 3.7 million tonnes of rice annually. A good percentage of this comes from Taraba, a land-locked state in Nigeria’s Northeast.

Although no specific data could be found on rice production in Taraba, a report by Growth and Employment in States (GEMS4) indicates that the state ranks high in rice production. The report places Taraba among 10 states practising dry and wet seasons production to augment local consumption which now stood at seven million tonnes per year.

From Wukari to Tsukundi, Rafin Kada, Donga Suntai and other villagers, farmers in Taraba work the whole year to contribute to national production.

The farmers are well known for high yield production of five variants of rice; Sipi, Faro, Yarhai, Abari and Parogidi.

All of what is being cultivated in these villages end up at the Wukari rice mill located strategically between the popular Takum Junction and Jalingo Road.

However, despite the enormous effort and considerable government support that go into rice farming, little or no attention is paid to the processing of the crop.

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This, by implication, increases the time, power and money spent on milling the raw farm produce to edible grains.

At different rice milling firms in Wukari, the process takes a minimum of five days, sometimes weeks, and several stages of labour to process rice.

It starts with transportation of the raw rice to washing, parboiling, sun-drying, milling, filtering and packaging. These stages are handled by men, women and children. Ninety per cent of these stages, classified into 10 in this report, is done manually.

Transportation from farm

At Engine Hajia, on a Wednesday morning, Mathias Rahila in a squalid dress paced friskily to ensure that her grains are properly milled to specification of customers. She is one of the dealers who go into the villages to purchase harvested rice from farmers.

Without the effort of people like her, hundreds of workers in the Wukari rice mills would not be engaged. But things have changed for worse recently. Dealers like Mrs Rahila no longer go into the villages to purchase rice because of the communal clashes pervading rice producing communities in Taraba.

“We use to go to many villages to buy. Now that there is crisis, we don’t go to villages again. They bring it to town and we buy,” she said, adding that the development has made the cost of milling rice more expensive.

Mrs Rahila would not divulge how much an unprocessed rice cost but says the quality determines the price. Her work comes with its challenges.

“Sometimes when we go to some nearby villages to buy, policemen on the road don’t allow us to move in peace. We give at least N50 at each check point. If we calculate all that the gain on the rice is gone.”

Once the trade comes out successful for the dealers, the next stages will be carried out at the milling areas.

Child labour for next stages

At least three of the next five stages of the process are handled by children. After transportation of the rice from farm to mill, the next stage is washing, then parboil, sun-drying, packing and transportation to engine house.

Joshua Simon and his twin brother, Caleb, both 14, are Senior Secondary School 2 students of a school in Jalingo. Each time their school goes on break, the brothers journey from Jalingo to Wukari to work for their uncle. It was not different after the summer break in July.

At the end of the vast rice mill area, they are responsible for washing of dirt and removal of particles from unprocessed rice.

“We normally push the stored rice with cart and we wash it. Once it’s dry, we pack it back,” says Caleb.

The task is not as easy as said. First, they need to wheel the rice from stores, open the sacks containing the grains, then pour them into a large drum of water for washing. After washing, they sun-dry and pack the grains back into the bags.

For these, the brothers are paid N500 each for 14 bags per day. They have been doing this since they were 12 and are already used to the major challenges.

“Our body used to scratch us and gets very hot when we want to sleep but it doesn’t affect us,” Caleb said.

For others who do not work for relatives, washing a 50kg bag goes for N20.

Just beside their washing area, Shuaibu Umar, a veteran of rice parboil operates. Mr Umar, now six years in the craft, is one of those who handles the third stage: parboil.

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The parboil process comes in two stages: soaking and steaming. Both of them are done in large aluminium containers with the aid of firewood. Mr Umar charges N200 per 50kg bag to do the two, and he parboils up to 20 bags per day. All his effort are done manually.

“After they bring the rice, we will wash, remove the chaffs and then transfer to this drum for parboil. We will put it inside hot water for one day. On the second day, we will remove it and put inside another water for few time. After that we’ll now remove it and spread on the ground.”

Mr Umar, a native of Misau Local Government in Bauchi State, said the heat from the fire remains his major challenge on the job but he has a remedy.

“If I sleep, my body gets very hot. This doesn’t subside until I take milk,” he said.

The success or otherwise of the next two stages depends on the ‘parboilers.’ Once Shuaibu is paid N200 for his service, N150 of this goes into his pocket while the remaining N50 is kept for sun-drying and packaging for the engine house. The two are the fourth and fifth stages of the chain.

Paul Augustine, 15, Wisdom Emmanuel, 16, Nafa Danladi, 16, are secondary school students but the harsh reality of life has pushed them into the rice milling value chain in Wukari. Now, with their small but growing biceps, they transport up to 100 bags to engine houses and back in a day.

The trio man a tricycle to carry out this responsibility. First, they carry the sun-dried rice into the tricycle, drives it to the engine house and offload. This goes for N50 per bag. If the owner wants it transported back to a warehouse, the charge increases to N100. But the accumulation of this amount is far less than the take-home for them

“The money is paid to the Oga and he gives us N600 or N700 after the day’s work,” Mr Danladi, who drives the tricycle said.

Like the Simon brothers, the trio complained of heat and back pain. Workers in Wukari rice mill seem to be totally oblivious of the provision of the Child Right Act.

Already domesticated in Taraba, the Act in section 28 prohibits exploitative labour, or works which require “in any case, to lift, carry or move anything so heavy as to be likely to adversely affect his physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”

The section prescribes imprisonment and fine for anyone found wanting.

The Act notwithstanding, about 30 per cent of total work in Wukari rice mill is discharged by children below the age of 18.

Saad Bala, Engine operator

In all of the over 30 engine factories in Wukari, the happiness of about 15 workers in each lies with the operator. Saad Bala is the champion at Engine Hajia.

Now a graduate of Federal University Wukari, Mr Bala was trained by his uncle right from his secondary school days. He now controls the two engines at Engine Hajia. He explains the processes involved in milling with engine.

“After they bring the rice for crushing, we’ll first test the rice whether it is dry enough for the engine. With my talent, I can know by just touching, but if you want to be very sure, we’ll put some in the engine and it won’t come out well. That means you have to dry it. If it’s well dried, it won’t suffer my engine. It will come out well and fast. If it’s not dry, the engine belt will remove many times and some other challenges.”

There are very few engine operators in Wukari, partially because of the technicality involved and more due to the beliefs of the locals.

Working as an engine operator has some rules, Mr Bala explains.

“If you go close to (had sex with) a woman the previous day, you are not supposed to start the engine. They will say someone else should try it. And if you start it by force, the engine will give you problem the whole day. I’ve tried it before. If it doesn’t give you problem, it will wound you. See my leg…

“The engine is just like human being. If you haven’t bath and you start the engine it will not work. It is a tradition.

“Like now, if the engine is giving you problem, your colleagues will ask you two questions: did you have sex yesterday? Have you bathed this morning?”

To initiate anyone into the small circle of operators, Mr Saad said such a person must be willing to keep all the rules.

With the help of some of his apprentices, he mills up to 200 tins per day. Four tins make up a 50kg bag of rice. While the engine owner collects N120 for each tin, Saad and three others who man an engine at a time, is paid N2000 for 100 tins milled.

The payment also come with some belief. “If you work with engine, you have to be very honest, if you’re not, the engine will revolt. It will injure you,” he said.

Also for this stage, some women who serve the engine trough are paid N30 per 50kg bag.

The last stages

While Mr Saad and others continue to work with the huller, some women armed with trays await the proceeds of the engine. They are called rice filterers, the custodians of the eight stage.

The rice huller crushes the husks, separating the grains from the chaffs. However, some of the crushed chaff escape with the grains. The filterers use their skills to separate the grains from the husks.

Peace Dimas is one of the filterers at Engine Hajia. About eight others work at the mill apart from Mrs Dimas.

The task of filtering is done in groups of four. For each group, the task is usually to sieve 20 to 30 bags of rice per day. The rice owners have two payment options.

“After the filter, if the owner likes, he can give us money but most times they give us rice,” she said, adding that the payment is N200 for 50kg bag of rice.

For the rice payment, the filterers are not given clean rice. Filtering has about two or three stages depending on how well the engine separates the grains from the husks. After the first filtering in trays, some grains escape with the husks. This portion is what goes for the payment for filterers.

Once this stage is completed, the rice owner pays N30 for bagging and another N50 for transportation, to complete the milling process.

Mitigating wasteful process

At the end of each milling process, a 50kg bag of local rice is sold for prices between N10, 000 and N10, 500, depending on quality.

However, the wasteful and crude nature of the milling process accounts for not less than 12 per cent of the whole cost.

Asides other costs, about N1, 210 is spent on processing a 25kg bag of rice. The cost includes N50 average to transport from farm, N100 for bag, N20 for washing, N200 for parboiling, sun-drying and packing.

Also, N50 for transport to the engine house, N480 for hulling, N200 for filtering, N30 for bagging and N50 for final transportation from engine house.

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These costs would have been drastically reduced if the process is mechanised, a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, an international auditing firm, says.

The report notes that Nigeria’s mechanisation has remained low at 0.3 hp/ha, (horsepower per hectare) relative to 2.6hp/ha in India and 8 hp/ha in China.

Nigeria’s rice statistics suggest there is an enormous potential to raise productivity and increase production but this has to come with deliberate act towards mechanisation.

The report notes, “Low income, limited access to affordable financing and the lack of technical skills have limited the adoption of mechanisation across the rice value chain.

“We estimate that increasing the mechanization rate in Nigeria from 0.3hp/ha to 0.8hp/ha in the next 5 years, can double rice production to 7.2 million tonnes.

“To achieve this, we estimate that Nigeria will need to at least triple its current stock of machinery over the same period. In addition to raising production, adequately increasing mechanisation has the capacity to raise yields, increase labour productivity, reduce post-harvest losses, increase income generated by farmers and deepen import substitution.”

Ignorantly, husks removed from paddy are disposed off after filtering. Most times, they are burnt after some days of piling up. However, husks can be put to use as building material, fertilizer, insulation material, or fuel.

Millers need to embrace new technology – Don

In 2015, the federal government, through the Central Bank of Nigeria, flagged off the Anchors Borrower Programme (ABP). The programme over the years have availed small holder rice farmers loans to boost production, stabilise inputs and address the country’s negative balance of payments on food.

Since inception, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) says it has cumulatively disbursed N174.48 billion through 19 financial institutions under the initiative. The bank said over one million small holder farmers across the 36 states have benefitted.

However, little of this has trickled down to the mining sphere of the rice production value chain, a situation many artisans in Wukari complained about.

“Since the policy has been in place, what millers are to do is to access the opportunity, they should do it in groups to gain recognition,” says A. Ajala, Head, Department of Food Engineering, Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Ogbomoso.

To reduce the energy and cost of milling, the don advised local rice millers to explore the option of iron rollers.

“What we need to do is to move from manual processing to automated, if that is accomplished, then we should move from automation to advanced automation, using precision engineering. This will reduce the cost drastically

“A majority of milling machines still uses rubber roll but there is replacement with iron roller these days. It is not widely circulated yet but with time, it will spread,” he said.

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Source: Inside Nigeria’s rice mills where manual, child labour thrive

By Kemi Busari

Techylawyer and its authors do not claim to have written this article, we acknowledge the works of the original author

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