At mile zero on the edges of river Nile, a swath of rusty cotton ginnery brings to mind the vibrancy and epitome of modern life that once characterised Rhino Camp in Arua district.
For years, the 95-year-old facility lay in deafly silence as Manchester made heavy metal pieces of manual compressors littered the bushy compound.
And the legendary establishment that once was the beacon of hope for the West Nile region faced the danger of being forgotten with history.
The orderly but crumbling former staff quarters tells the story of how Rhino Camp ginnery fell into abyss over the years.
However optimism has dramatically comeback as the 40 gin machines have become operational once again, in the process providing over 120 direct job opportunities to the people during the cotton harvest and ginning period.
This has happened consistently since the Gulu Agricultural Development Company (GADC) took over the factory in 2016 according to Mr John Onenarach, the ginnery manager.
The Rhino Camp ginnery was constructed by a Greek businessman known as Morgan Margah. The work started in 1923 and finished in 1927.
Its location was strategic because Rhino Camp was a docking and repair station for steamer ships that were the backbone of water transport through the River Nile.
In 1922, the colonial government opened the Arua-Rhino Camp road that became the main transit route to Pakwach that had the option of a railway link to Kampala. Rhino camp also has an airstrip for light planes providing fast means of travel for officials and businessmen.
The ginnery did not just offer employment opportunities but also steered the business that flourished in the adjacent market.
The Greeks ran the facility up to 1957 when the West Nile cooperative union took over the management.
The facility annually handled about 21,000 bales each containing 185kg of cotton, which was turned into lint after removing the seeds.
That time farmers sold cotton at sh300 per kilo which they say had more monetary value than today.
At the peak of its golden times in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the ginnery directly employed 200 – 300 people and had thousands of farmers supplying cotton.
The fall of Rhino camp ginnery
The decline and the fall of Rhino Camp ginnery began in 1964 as more cooperative unions were created and smaller ginneries established initially as a way of shortening the distance for farmers to access ginning station.
Consequently, the Pakwach ginnery was built under the South-West Nile cooperative union and Adjumani ginnery under the Madi cooperative union.
These creations with time became rivals to the West Nile cooperative union while cotton also faced stiff competition from tobacco whose price was much higher.
To overcome the competition, the farmers’ union got money from the lint marketing board which itself obtained money through a loan from the cooperative development bank.
Eventually, the loans became untenable and the union became too weak to do good business.
The farmers’ union sold the Rhino Camp ginnery to Copcot East Africa ltd, a Swiss based company in 2003.
The company tried to revamp cotton production by introducing an organic cotton which is high yielding. But the drawback was that the new variety was susceptible to pest attack.
Cotton production as a result declined significantly and the Rhino Camp ginnery was completely shut down in 2008.
In 2009, Copcot sold the ginnery to the Uganda National Cotton Farmers’ Federation (UNACOFF) which reopened the factory but closed it again in January 2012 after a mysterious fire gutted the ginnery stores causing over sh400m financial loss.
The police at the time said the cause of the fire was spontaneous ignition caused by overheating arising from poor aeration.
The resultant loss meant that UNACOFF could not offset a loan they had acquired from the Uganda Development Bank to buy the ginnery and pay farmers sh145m for the burnt cotton, sh15m to a transporter and sh7.8m to an input supplier.
Other employee such as the watchmen also worked without pay for many years guarding the premises.
As UNACOFF drained under the weight of financial complications, the Uganda Development Bank took over the facility and sold it off to GADC in 2016, thus beginning a new lease of life for the Rhino Camp ginnery.
The arrival of GADC to the Rhino Camp ginnery was akin to a rebirth of an old facility.
“We found the place was bushy and dirty. We did a lot of cleaning and we repaired the old machines. They are slow but they give finer and high quality lint,” Onenarach says.
To regain the trust of sceptical farmers, GADC buys cotton in cash at sh1,700 a kilo and also relies on the cotton development organisation for further mobilisation of farmers.
The cotton development organisation distributes pesticides up to the village level through lead farmers, it sells cotton seeds at sh3,500, hires tractor services at sh60,000 per acre and sells spray pumps at sh50,000.
In the first year they got cotton from 5,000 acres, rising to 7,000 acres last year and officials are aiming for 10,000 acres this year.
GADC deals in conventional cotton of HZ variety that if looked after very well can yield 1,000kg in an acre, translating into sh1.7m.
On arrival to the ginnery complex, the cotton is loaded on to an suction fan that takes it to the opener. The opener loosens the cotton before pushing it onto the platform where ten girls stand ready to feed it onto the gin machines.
The gin machines with help of monitoring technicians turns the cotton into long lint while the seed is channelled to the seed store.
The lint passes through a conveyer to the condenser which cleans it of dust. The clean lint moves on to the press unit that does the baling. The baled cotton is then moved onto a nine decade old manual weighing scale for measurement.
The entire complex is operated on a 270kva generator that guzzles 300 litres of diesel per shift and because the facility operates in two shifts, 600 litres of fuel is used daily.
Onenarach says the costs of power generation could significantly come down if the government provides electricity to run such an important factory.
“The business is steadily picking up and we have added simsim production and buying onto cotton. We buy simsim at sh4,000 a kilo and we have machines that clean simsim up to 98% purity,” he says.